US, EU leaders call for release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny after he was detained by Russia
WASHINGTON: Leaders from the United States and European Union have called for the immediate release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who was detained on arrival at a Moscow airport on Sunday (Jan 17) after he flew home to Russia from Germany for the first time since he was poisoned last summer.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that the US "strongly condemns" the arrest of Navalny.
"We note with grave concern that his detention is the latest in a series of attempts to silence Navalny and other opposition figures and independent voices who are critical of Russian authorities," he added.
Navalny was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport less than an hour after he flew in from Germany, where he had been recovering from the poisoning with a nerve agent he says was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Western experts concluded he was poisoned with Soviet-designed nerve toxin Novichok. The Kremlin denies any involvement and Russian investigators said there were no grounds to launch a probe.
"Navalny is not the problem. We demand his immediate and unconditional release. Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor commit violence against or wrongfully detain political opponents," added Pompei.
US President-elect Joe Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan also called for Russia to release Navalny.
"Mr Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable," Jake Sullivan tweeted.
"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."
European Council president Charles Michel also condemned the detention of Navalny and urged the Russian authorities to free him.
"The detainment of Alexey Navalny upon arrival in Moscow is unacceptable. I call on Russian authorities to immediately release him," Michel wrote on Twitter.
The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell echoed the calls.
"Russian authorities must respect Alexei Navalny's rights and release him immediately. Politicisation of the judiciary is unacceptable," Borrell tweeted.
The poisoning of Navalny has fuelled tensions between the bloc and its eastern neighbour.
In December, Germany was hit with what it called "unjustified" tit-for-tat sanctions by Russia over penalties imposed by the EU following the poisoning.
Moscow issued travel bans against several EU representatives after Brussels imposed sanctions on six Russian officials over the poisoning.
Figures close to the Kremlin feature prominently on the list of the six, who the EU said were responsible in some way for the poisoning of Navalny due to the functions they held.
"France notes the arrest of Mr Alexei Navalny in Russia with very strong concern," the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
"Along with its European partners, it is following his situation with the greatest vigilance and calls for his immediate release."
Lithuania's Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has called for EU sanctions against Moscow, while Amnesty International accused Russian authorities of waging "a relentless campaign" to silence Navalny.