MOSCOW: Imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny voiced hope for better future in Russia as his supporters held pickets and demonstrations to mark his 47th birthday on Sunday (Jun 4).
Navalny is serving a nine-year sentence for fraud and contempt of court, charges he says were trumped up to punish his work to expose official corruption and organising anti-Kremlin protests.
He is facing a new trial on extremism charges that could keep him in prison for decades. Kremlin critics view the case as another Russian government attempt to isolate President Vladimir Putin's most prominent foe.
Navalny’s associates called for demonstrations to show support for him in Russia and abroad Sunday.
Risking their own prison terms, some Navalny supporters in Russia marked his birthday by holding individual pickets, while others painted graffiti. Police quickly detained many for questioning, and officers maintained a beefed-up presence in downtown Moscow
Pro-Navalny demonstrations were held in several European cities.
Navalny said in a social media post released by his allies that he would obviously prefer to spend his birthday with a family breakfast, kisses from his children and gifts but "life is such that social progress and a better future can only be achieved if a certain number of people are willing to pay for the right to have beliefs".
“The more there are such people, the smaller the price each has to pay,” he said. “And a day will certainly come when it will be routine and not dangerous at all to tell the truth and stand for justice in Russia.”
Navalny was arrested in January 2021 upon returning to Moscow after he recuperated in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin.
He initially received a two-and-a-half-years prison sentence for a parole violation. Last year, he was sentenced to nine years for fraud and contempt of court. He is currently serving time at a maximum-security prison 250km east of Moscow.
The extremism charges against Navalny, which could keep him in prison for 30 years, relate to the activities of his anti-corruption foundation and statements by his top associates. His allies said the charges retroactively criminalise all the activities of Navalny’s foundation since its creation in 2011.
The new accusations come as Russian authorities are conducting an intensified crackdown on dissent amid the fighting in Ukraine, which Navalny has harshly criticised.
A Moscow court scheduled a preliminary hearing Tuesday to discuss technical issues related to a new trial of Navalny, rejecting a request by his lawyers for more time to examine voluminous new charges that he rejected as “absurd”.
Navalny also has cited an investigator telling him that he also would face a separate military court trial on terrorism charges that potentially carry a life sentence.
He said in a social media post Sunday that he sees his prison term “just as an unpleasant part of my favourite job” and thanked his supporters.
“My plan for the previous year was not to grow brutal and embittered and not to lose the nonchalance of behaviour - this is where defeat begins,” he wrote. “And if I succeeded, it was only thanks to your support.”