Russia Navalny: Poisoned opposition leader held after flying home

Russia Navalny: Poisoned opposition leader held after flying home

Originally published by BBC NEWS

Putin critic Alexei Navalny has been detained after flying back to Moscow from Germany, five months after he was nearly killed by a nerve agent attack.

The activist, 44, was led away by police at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport.

Thousands had gathered at a different Moscow airport to greet his flight from Berlin, but the plane was diverted.

Mr Navalny blames Russian authorities for the attempt on his life last year. The Kremlin denies any role.

The opposition politician’s allegations have however been backed up by reports from investigative journalists.

News of Mr Navalny’s detention prompted condemnation from the European Union, France and Italy, which called for his immediate release.

US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser echoed the call. “The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard,” Jake Sullivan said.

How did events unfold?

When Mr Navalny was poisoned last August and collapsed on an internal flight in Siberia, he was flown to Germany for emergency medical treatment. As he recovered, he said he intended to return to Russia.

On Sunday he made good on that pledge, boarding a Pobeda Airlines flight despite warnings he would face arrest on landing.

The plane was packed with journalists, including Andrey Kozenko of the BBC Russian Service. Shortly before landing, the pilot announced that for “technical reasons”, the plane was being diverted from Vnukovo airport to Sheremetyevo airport, causing a stir among the passengers.

“I know that I’m right. I fear nothing,” Mr Navalny told supporters and the media upon landing, just minutes before he was detained. “Have you been waiting for me long?” he asked border guards.

He kissed his wife Yulia – who had flown with him from Germany – after police officers warned they would use physical force if he disobeyed their orders to come with them. Despite pleas, Mr Navalny’s lawyer was not allowed to accompany him.

The activist is being held at a police station in Moscow.

Russian police detain a Navalny supporters at Moscow's Vnukovo airport. Photo: 17 January 2021
image captionA number of Navalny supporters were detained at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport

Earlier on Sunday, extra riot police were deployed and metal barriers erected inside Vnukovo airport, where the plane was originally scheduled to land.

Russian media reported that a number of activists – including key Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol – had been detained.

Why was Navalny detained?

In a statement late on Sunday, Russia’s prison service said the opposition leader “had been wanted since 29 December 2020 for repeated violations of the probation period”. It added that he would remain in custody until a court decision.

The authorities accuse him of violating conditions imposed after a conviction for embezzlement, for which he received a suspended sentence. He has always said the case was politically motivated.

Separately, Russian prosecutors have launched a new criminal case against Mr Navalny on fraud charges related to transfers of money to various charities, including his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

The activist earlier argued that Mr Putin was doing all he could to stop him from returning to Russia by fabricating new cases against him.

Analysis box by Steve Rosenberg, Moscow correspondent

The Russian authorities often make out that Alexei Navalny isn’t popular with the Russian people, that he’s no threat to President Putin.

But his return home five months after being poisoned sparked a major police operation on Sunday.

In chaotic scenes, riot police pushed Mr Navalny’s supporters out of the arrivals hall of Vnukovo airport, before the flight was rerouted.

Last summer, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure was attacked in Siberia allegedly by an undercover hit squad of Russian security agents.

His decision to return home is a direct challenge to Vladimir Putin – and creates a dilemma for the Kremlin.

It risks turning him into a political martyr, a Nelson Mandela-like figure, and sparking more Western sanctions.

Do nothing and the Kremlin’s fiercest critic will almost certainly be a thorn in its side in an important election year.

What happened to Navalny last year?

In August, he collapsed on a plane flying from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow. The pilot diverted the flight to the city of Omsk, where Mr Navalny was admitted to hospital. Two days later, Russian officials allowed him to be airlifted to Germany in an induced coma for specialised treatment.

European experts later said he had been poisoned with the extremely toxic chemical weapon Novichok, developed by Soviet scientists in the Cold War.

He was released from a hospital in Berlin in September to continue his recuperation.

Mr Navalny said recently he was able to do push-ups and squat exercises, and therefore had probably almost fully recovered.

Last month, investigative reporters named three agents of Russia’s FSB security service who had travelled to Tomsk at the time Mr Navalny was there, and said the specialist unit had tailed him for years.

Still from Navalny video in which he phoned one of his alleged would-be assassins
image captionAlexei Navalny posed as a security official in the phone call with an FSB agent

Mr Navalny then duped an FSB agent named Konstantin Kudryavtsev into revealing details of the operation against him in a phone conversation which he recorded and posted online.

The agent told him that the Novichok used to poison him had been placed in his underpants.

President Putin has dismissed investigations by the Bellingcat website and other groups that have blamed Russian intelligence agents for the attack as “a trick”. He has alleged his rival is backed by US intelligence services.