MOSCOW — A Russian court on Thursday ordered opposition leader Alexei Navalny to stay in jail, days after tens of thousands of people demanding his release filled streets and squares of cities across Russia last weekend.
The court rejected Navalny’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling to keep him in custody for 30 days over parole violations, which he has denied. Navalny was detained Jan. 17 after flying back to Moscow from Berlin, where he was recovering after being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in August. He accused President Vladimir Putin of ordering the poisoning, calling it an attempted political assassination.
The court’s decision signaled the Kremlin’s intention to go as far as it can to remove Navalny, who has turned into Putin’s most vociferous and effective opponent in the past few years, from the Russian political scene. It came one day after police officers raided the apartments and offices of Navalny and his key allies and before another series of protests planned by his team across Russia for this weekend.
Russia’s prison service claims Navalny repeatedly violated the terms of a suspended sentence stemming from a financial-crime case brought against him that the European Court of Human Rights said was unwarranted.
On Tuesday, Navalny will face another hearing over parole violations, which could result in the suspended sentence being converted into prison time. If the court approves the petition, Navalny could spend more than 2 1/2 years behind bars.
Appearing in court on a video link Thursday for the first time since the mass protests against his incarceration, Navalny ridiculed the proceedings as a politically driven campaign to silence him and scare his supporters.
“I have an answer to why this is happening,” Navalny said. “This blatant lawlessness is done to scare me and everyone else. The judges do not do it; they are just obedient slaves here — it is done by the people who have robbed our country.”
In official statements, the Kremlin has dismissed Navalny as an immature and power-hungry charlatan, ready to stir up the public, especially the young, to raise his political profile. Putin, who usually prefers not to mention Navalny by name, described him as an asset of Western intelligence services.
Asked at a news conference in December to respond to Navalny’s accusations that he was poisoned on direct orders from the Kremlin, Putin scoffed: “Who cares about him?”
“If they really wanted to, they would have, most likely, carried it through,” Putin said.
Despite the Kremlin’s dismissal of Navalny and his supporters as part of a misguided minority, the opposition leader has demonstrated an ability to grab the attention of millions of people in Russia.
Shortly after his return to Moscow, Navalny’s team published an investigation describing a secret palace on the shores of the Black Sea, which they said was built for Putin and paid for by state-run companies. The video version of the investigation has been viewed by more than 100 million people on YouTube, with 70% watching from Russia, according to Lyubov Sobol, Navalny’s ally. On Monday, Putin dismissed Navalny’s accusations, calling the video investigation “boring.”
While in jail, Navalny has been unplugged from daily political life, said Olga Mikhailova, his lawyer. For instance, he wasn’t aware that several members of his team had been arrested and his apartment searched by police.
Over the past week, Russian authorities have detained more than 4,000 people across the country at protests calling for Navalny’s release, according to OVD-Info, an activist group that tracks arrests at protests. At least seven criminal cases have been opened against protesters, Moscow police said in a statement, warning people against taking part in protests that were not sanctioned.
As his supporters are facing mounting pressure from authorities, Navalny, speaking from jail by the video link Thursday, tried to lift their spirits.
“They aren’t the masters of our country and will never be,” Navalny said, referring to Putin and his government.
“Many people, tens of millions, agree with me,” he said. “And we will never allow for these people to capture and rob our country.”