Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was jailed this week over a years-old fraud case, denied wrongdoing during a court hearing Friday on separate charges that he defamed a World War Two veteran.
Navalny accused prosecutors of a “shameless” pursuit of “fabricated” cases and said he did not understand the latest allegations against him, which relate to comments he made last June on social media. He had criticized a video by state media channel RT in which various people expressed support for controversial changes to the Russian constitution. Veteran Ignat Artemenko, 94, was among them.
The activist’s appearance came shortly before EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.
Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, was among a number of EU leaders to condemn Russian authorities for imprisoning Navalny and for detaining thousands of people who protested his treatment.
His decision to go ahead with the trip to Russia as planned — despite the protests and continued imprisonment of Russia’s most prominent opposition figure — with no pre-conditions has enraged critics of the EU’s relationship with Russia.
“If the EU is serious about having a dialogue with Russia and not just with a group of thugs around Putin, then Borrell should have made meeting with Navalny a pre-condition,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russia-based opposition politician who has been poisoned twice in the past five years.
Speaking alongside Lavrov, Borrell said he had called on Russia to release Navalny, who was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison, and to launch an investigation into his poisoning.
“While we fully respect Russian sovereignty, and its own responsibility regarding the fulfillment of its international commitments, the European Union considers that issues related with the rule of law, human rights, civil society and political freedom are central to a common future, both for the European Union and Russia,” Borrell said.
He added that relations between the European Union and Russia have, over the past few years, “been marked by fundamental differences and lack of trust.”
Lavrov in turn criticized sanctions on Moscow, saying that EU-Russia relations had gone through “difficult times due to unilateral and illegitimate restrictions that the EU have imposed under false pretenses.”
He said it was important that Russia and EU “showed the intent to support channels of dialogue, especially on those issues where we have diverging views.” And he warned that “the further deterioration of relations is fraught with negative consequences.”
Navalny’s defamation trial had been due to resume on January 20 but was postponed after his arrest at the airport on January 17, moments after he returned to Moscow from Germany.
The opposition leader had been recovering in Berlin after falling ill on August 20 from exposure to military-grade Novichok on a plane heading from Siberia to Moscow. Navalny blames his poisoning on Russian security services and on President Vladimir Putin himself, accusations that the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.
At the start of the hearing, Navalny asked the court for half an hour to get acquainted with the case and confer with his lawyers. The court said he had had since August to get acquainted with the case, to which Navalny replied: “I had a lot of other stuff to do in August.”
Navalny continued to ridicule the legal process and demand that the veteran, in his 90s, be permitted to take off his mask and lie down. The veteran appeared at the hearing via a video link from his apartment.
Asked by the prosecutor if he understood the charges, Navalny replied “No, I don’t know anything about Artemenko, except that his relatives are selling him out.”
Navalny is accused of breaking Russia’s libel law in his social media comments last June on the RT video, which also featured prominent Russian cultural and sporting figures. The changes to the constitution, which were backed in July 1 referendum, paved the way for Putin, who has ruled for two decades, to remain president until 2036.
In December, the penalty for defamation was changed to include potential jail time. But at the time of the alleged offense, those found guilty could only be fined up to a million rubles (about $13,300) or ordered to carry out community service.
Speaking Friday, Navalny accused Russian courts of being “corrupt” and claimed the case against him had been brought not by investigators but by “the PR people of Russia Today (RT).”
“Cases are always fabricated against me, but the authorities have problems when cases go to court,” he said. “It is clear to everyone there that the truth is on my side.”
Navalny was sentenced to prison on Tuesday for failing to report to parole officers following his poisoning last summer and thereby breaching the terms of a suspended sentence for embezzlement in a 2014 case. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that that case was politically motivated.
The Kremlin critic ridiculed claims he broke his parole conditions, pointing out that he was in a coma and then in ICU in Germany, and denounced President Vladimir Putin as “Putin the poisoner.”
On Thursday it was revealed that a top doctor at the Russian hospital where Navalny was treated immediately after his poisoning last summer has died.
Sergey Maximishin, who was the deputy chief physician of the Omsk emergency hospital, “suddenly” passed away at the age of 55, according to a statement released by the hospital.