Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen a glass cage before a hearing at the Babushkinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia, February 20, 2021. Months earlier, Navalny was sickened by a Soviet-era nerve agent that ultimately caused him to commit a parole violation. File Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE
March 22 (UPI) -- A Russian court on Tuesday sentenced opposition leader and high-profile Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to nine more years in prison on charges of fraud and contempt while his lawyers were arrested following the hearing.
The court's ruling means that Navalny, who was already in prison for a parole violation technicality, could now be behind bars for a total of 12 years, his legal team said. The judge also fined Navalny about $11,000.
Prosecutors charged Navalny with stealing more than $4.7 million in donations that were given to his political organizations for his own personal use, and had asked the court to sentence him to 13 years in a penal colony.
The court's sentence says that Navalny, who can appeal the decision, must spend the time in a maximum security prison.
His supporters and leaders of democratic nations have been adamant the charges are politically motivated and are a continuing effort by the Kremlin to quash dissent, particularly that of one of its most vocal critics.
Navalny, who has been previously arrested by Russian authorities, survived being poisoned in August of 2020, an act that has been widely blamed on the Kremlin. His anti-corruption organizations were also labeled "extremists" last year, effectively shutting them down. And then in late January, Navalny was added to Russia's terrorists and extremists list.
His spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said ahead of the verdict being read that Navalny's transfer will make it "practically impossible" to keep in contact with.
"Without public protection, Alexei will be face-to-face with those again who have already tried to kill him. And nothing will stop them from trying again," she tweeted. "Therefore, we are now talking not only about Alexei's freedom, but also about his life."
After the sentence was handed down, Navalny tweeted that not only will he and his anti-corruption foundations continue fighting the Kremlin but that they will take it to "a new level."
"In 2013, after hearing my first verdict, I wrote this and now I will repeat it: Don't be idle," he said. "This toad sitting on an oil pipe will not overthrow itself."
Many critics believe that Navalny's convictions and his poisoning in 2020 were ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to quell dissent. Photo by Sergei Guneyev/EPA-EFE
After the hearing, local independent news organization Mediazona reported that Navalny's lawyers, Olga Mikhailova and Vadim Kobzev, were arrested as they were speaking with journalists.
They were escorted onto a paddy wagon and were taken from the scene.
Yarmysh said the Russian authorities detained the two lawyers over the pretext of interfering with the movement of a special vehicle.
"If so, then this is because they gave interviews after the verdict," she tweeted. "Our court is so 'open' and 'honest' that even lawyers are detained if they dare to comment on the case."
Navalny's sentence was quickly condemned by democratic nations who called on Russia for his immediate release.
"This outlandish prison term is a continuation of the Kremlin's years-long assault on Navalny and on his movement for government transparency and accountability," U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. "Of course, Navalny's true crime in the eyes of the Kremlin is his work as an anti-corruption activists and opposition politician, for which he and his associates have been branded 'extremists' by Russian authorities."
Josep Borrell, the high representative for the European Union for Foreign affairs, chastised the court for holding the proceedings in a de facto closed setting at a penal colony outside of Moscow, making it inaccessible to observers and "opens space for the fabrication of charges and lack of exercise of defense rights by the accused."
"This is the starkest indication that the Russian legal system continues to be instrumentalized against Mr. Navalny," he said in a statement. "We reiterated our call on the Russian authorities for his immediate and unconditional release."
Navalny had been serving a 2½-year sentence for violating a 2014 suspended sentence for embezzlement while recovering from poisoning in Germany in 2020. Critics said the embezzlement conviction was also politically motivated.
The Russian government is suspected in his poisoning, which medical officials said was carried out with the Soviet-era nerve agent novichok.
After he fell ill on a flight, Navalny spent 32 days in the hospital, most of them in the intensive care unit. He was later taken to Germany for treatment, where doctors identified the novichok.
Yulia Navalnaya, the jailed opposition leader's wife, posted a family photo of them with their two children to Instagram after her husband's sentence was announced.
"We have been together for more than 20 years, and year after year, we learn to be good parents and good spouses, but if we have to constantly resist pressure, then we will master this science," she said. "And the number nine means nothing at all."