Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny says, despite facing arrest, he’s returning to Russia on Sunday
Navalny Instagram account AP
MOSCOW — Less than six months after Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was poisoned in what he has said was a state-ordered attack, he announced Wednesday that he is returning to Russia, where he could find himself behind bars soon after his arrival.
Navalny has been recovering in Germany since he became gravely ill during an Aug. 20 flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk. After receiving initial treatment in Omsk, where the plane made an emergency landing, Navalny was transferred to a Berlin hospital, where he spent more than two weeks in a medically induced coma. He has not been back in Russia since but is planning his return for Jan. 17.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin, who gave the order to kill me, is screaming in his bunker and tells his servants to do everything to prevent me from returning,” Navalny said in an Instagram post. “Servants act as usual, fabricating new criminal cases against me. But I’m not very interested in what they are doing. Russia is my country, Moscow is my city, and I miss them.”
Navalny then asked his supporters to “come meet me,” adding that he was flying Pobeda Airlines. Within hours, nearly 400 people responded “going” to a Facebook group with information about when Navalny’s flight is scheduled to land at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.
The Kremlin has denied any role in Navalny’s poisoning and has ignored Western leaders’ calls to open an investigation into what happened. The investigative website Bellingcat reported recently that it used telecom and travel data to discover that eight Russian state security agents were in the vicinity when Navalny was poisoned in Tomsk.
During a December news conference, Putin seemed to confirm that Navalny was being surveilled but denied that Moscow was responsible for his poisoning. He said with a laugh: “Who needs him anyway? If we had really wanted, we’d have finished the job.”
In the past month, Moscow has not-so-subtly warned Navalny against returning. On Dec. 28, Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service threatened to replace Navalny’s suspended three-year sentence in a 2014 embezzlement case with a real prison term if he did not return by Dec. 29 — a virtual impossibility considering international travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. His extended probation period was set to expire on Dec. 30.
The Federal Penitentiary Service delivered on that threat Monday, formally requesting that Navalny’s sentence to be changed to jail time.
“Putin is so enraged that I survived his poisoning that he ordered [the Federal Penitentiary Service] to go to court and demand that my suspended sentence be changed to a real one,” Navalny wrote Tuesday on Twitter, providing a screenshot of the legal request filed with a Moscow court.
In 2018, Europe’s top human rights court ruled that Navalny was unfairly convicted and that the case appeared to be part of a broader effort “to bring the opposition under control.”
The Federal Penitentiary Service accused Navalny of violating the terms of the suspended sentence and of evading the supervision of Russia’s criminal inspection authority. Citing an article in the Lancet medical journal about Navalny’s treatment, the prison service said Navalny was discharged from a hospital in Berlin on Sept. 20 and that all of his symptoms had vanished by Oct. 12.
“Therefore the convicted man is not fulfilling all of the obligations placed on him by the court and is evading the supervision of the Criminal Inspectorate,” it said.
On Dec. 29, Russia’s main investigative agency said it had opened a new criminal case against Navalny on charges of large-scale fraud related to alleged mishandling of about $5 million in private donations to his Anti-Corruption Foundation and other organizations.
“It looks like Putin is in hysterics,” Navalny retorted on Twitter.