Russian Court Jails Putin’s Most Influential Opponent

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There were moments during the trial of Alexei Navalny, leader of the Russian opposition movement, when his dark realism seemed to lift, allowing him to believe that the Kremlin would not go so far as to throw its fiercest critic in prison. When we spoke on the phone days before his verdict was read on Thursday he told me, “It sounds crazy, but they seem serious about letting me run for mayor.” The incumbent mayor of Moscow, a diehard ally of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, even helped Navalny get on the ballot this week. It had been Navalny’s intention to run in the election in September. But that was all for nothing; on Thursday morning Navalny, together with a co-defendant, was found guilty of embezzling nearly $500,000 during a timber-trading deal. Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison. His co-defendant, businessman Pyotr Ofitserov, was given a four-year sentence. Each man was fined over $15,000.

The ruling, which will likely keep Navalny locked up until the end of Putin’s third term in office and which Navalny will almost certainly appeal, seemed to have no logic other than the one Navalny expressed to me just before the trial began. “‘If you don’t believe we’ll throw you in prison, you better believe it,’” he told me while pacing around his office in April. “That’s Putin’s position,” he said.

(MORE: Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1: A Visit With Alexei Navalny)

But it didn’t have to be. As Navalny was first to admit, his ability to challenge Putin’s rule could have been crushed without the use of Russia’s prison camps. The justice system could have sidelined him with a simple guilty verdict on charges of embezzlement, which even the investigators on the case admitted to have political motives. The court could have given him a large fine and a lengthy period of probation. That would have put a felony charge on his record, barring him from ever running for office in Russia again. And if he continued to organize or even attend unsanctioned political protests — like the one last winter that he says brought down the Kremlin’s fury — it would constitute a violation of his probation and would likely result in his getting sent directly to jail. His options for political activism would thus be isolated mostly to the Internet — to his Twitter account and hugely popular blog.

Navalny was already weakened in other ways. He was almost bankrupt by this spring, hardly able to work on his anticorruption campaigns because of all the time and money he was spending on the trial. And worst of all for him, the popular movement against Putin was losing energy by the day, as Navalny’s fellow activists bickered among themselves, split off and seemed at times to resign themselves to Putin’s rule.

So why imprison a man who already poses no real threat? As Navalny noted, it would only be to make a statement: “‘If you think we’re afraid of the West or the press … here’s another set of charges.’” That is the message Putin has sent time and again. And although the Russian constitution bestows the courts with full independence, rights groups have for years chronicled their use in Russia as a weapon of the ruling elite. During Putin’s first term as President, his greatest political enemy, the oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sent to prison, where he remains to this day. Last summer, a Moscow court sentenced members of the protest group Pussy Riot to two years in prison for hooliganism after they performed a crude anti-Putin song near the altar of a cathedral.

(MORE: The Blogger Who Became Putin’s Greatest Challenger)

Russian accountant Sergei Magnitsky, who had accused a group of officials of large-scale fraud, not only died in prison in 2009 but also was convicted this month of tax evasion after his death, the only posthumous guilty verdict ever handed down in Russian history. Right now a group of activists are also on trial in Moscow for taking part in a political protest that turned violent last May.

But if all the previous cases have been met with dejection, deepening the cynicism and political malaise that has gripped the anti-Putin movement, the imprisonment of Navalny could mark a turning point. Minutes after the verdict was announced, activists began calling for a protest at the Kremlin walls, and riot troops began erecting barriers to keep Navalny’s supporters away. They were, in effect, reacting to Navalny’s final message, which he tweeted out just before the cuffs clicked onto his wrists: “You guys don’t go missing me,” he wrote to his 370,000 followers. “And most important — don’t be lazy.”

It was a lot to ask of a movement, which, after a year of lost momentum, is now also robbed of its leader. The demonstrations of 2011 and 2012, when Navalny led hundreds of thousands of protesters in demanding Putin’s resignation, have devolved into rote and repetitive affairs. But now, thanks to the Russian justice system, that movement will have a martyr to rally around. The Kremlin must have seen this coming, and it will now have to face the backlash.

48 comments
prasadmt05
prasadmt05

“There should be no illusions like when someone is calling for everyone to catch a thief, giving this person a license to steal. But this also does not mean that someone whose views differ from those of the authorities must be put on trial and dragged to prison,” Putin

sinivdev33
sinivdev33

@TIME Putin jailing his opponent is the same strategy as Congress in India, Madamji using CBI against opponents!!

Ганс_Шмайссер
Ганс_Шмайссер

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AlaaH.Abdulsalam
AlaaH.Abdulsalam

Where supremacy of law is compromised, political opponents can be victimized. This is happening in Egypt with the Brotherhood now. 

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

"[The jailings] may revive the anti-Putin movement??"

Sorry, but that movement has been in existence for years now.  It hasn't been effective, because the communist rule has kept tabs on its members, and suppressed the group when it gets out of hand.

Many in Russia despise Putin, but they lack the power (and will) to collectively over-throw him.

socal21st
socal21st

Ah, Putin.  I don't know if he's a Stalin, but he is certainly a Park Chung-hee.

BorisIII
BorisIII

Putin seems to be becoming more and more of a crazy dictator.  The more that corruption in gov. increases the weaker the country will get.

ShaunMacNeil
ShaunMacNeil

Putin is acting with complete impunity.  Not only has he corrupted the Russian justice system and electoral process but he has also plundered the country's finances to make himself a billionaire.  That notwithstanding, most average Russians like him because he is bringing order back to the streets where crime was so rampant. 

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

One corrupt bureaucrat vs. another corrupt bureaucrat. Our totally impartial media is at it again.

YaValioCacaWates
YaValioCacaWates

King Putin his way or the highway, or most likely prison.  Incarcerate all of your opposition is the Putin way.  Gotta to wonder while the Russian people put up with all his mess?  Welcome to Russia comrade Snowden.

holsenjj
holsenjj

@TIME And Snowden thinks this is good place for him to live? Snowden has become an oxymoron.

exrell
exrell

@TIME It will surely be. This is a point of no-return.

Rockygee415
Rockygee415

@kalekisne@TIME

I basically make about $6,000-$8,000 a month online. It's enough to comfortably replace my old jobs income, especially considering I only work about 10-13 hours a week from home. This is how to start>............www.bar28.ℂom

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@BrucePolWatch @slone There is a guy still in jail for violating the terms of his parole.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Unhappy is in any country, and Russia is no exception.
But in Russia there are not many disgruntled policy of Putin, how writes the American press.
In the USA many times more people are unhappy about the policy of Barack Obama.
Many-many-many... in the USA despise Barack Hussein
If all Russians liked Putin's course, for him voted 100% of the population in the elections for President,  but not 64%.  
The nearest rival of Putin's  - Gennady Zyuganov scored only 17%.


NeilStrachan
NeilStrachan

@BorisIII Perhaps I am naive, but did he embezzle?  Why is that not an issue?  If he did, he is a crook, just like all of the billionaires from Russia that stole all the property when the Soviet Union crashed.  Are you arguing that because he opposes Putin he should get away with any crime?  Peculiar.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@BorisIII

According to the American and Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan, the United States is the most corrupt country in the world. When the actor was asked a question about corruption in China, he said, that this phenomenon exists in all countries, not only in China, but worst of all things are in the United States.

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

@ShaunMacNeil How much would you pay for order?

You wouldn't pay  a few billion to protect thousands of lives? You monster!

The justice system is corrupt but order is returning to the streets?!? 

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

@YaValioCacaWates This is a huge improvement over Stalin you gotta admit. The media never gives Russia any credit! 

When it's our guy Snowden on the line, the media attack dogs are out to cover up our own governments malfeasance. Remember that fella who made that tape that supposedly caused a bunch of riots in the Middle East? It was hilarious how fast charges were trumped up against him. HAHA hilarious! It's okay he wasn't the right kind of people anyways.

ShaunMacNeil
ShaunMacNeil

@holsenjj @TIME  The moment Putin has no more use for him he will be hand delivered to the doorstep of the FBI headquarters in Langley VA.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@Sibir Perhaps if Putin wasn't killing and jailing so many reporters we would get a truer picture of what happens in the Russian Mob State.

BorisIII
BorisIII

@NeilStrachan @BorisIII Actually I was saying Putin and the other leaders is a bit crazy and well gradually tear the Soviet Union down with his growing insanity.  It takes very sane, open minded people to successfully run a country.  You have to be very sane to be a multidimensional thinker.  Which is easier said than done.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@Sibir Poor Putin Clown, you do realize that Manufacturing, Housing, and the Stock Market are all up. But hey guess anything you can throw at the wall to distract from your favorite Tyrant.

ShaunMacNeil
ShaunMacNeil

@NaveedXVO @ShaunMacNeil 

Yes the justice system is corrupt.  This is hardly a secret.  Putin isn't even trying too hard to conceal it.  He is imprisoning his political adversaries with impunity.  And even though he was going to handily win the last election, he still felt it was necessary to rig the ballot counting.  The man is a meglomaniac who impulsively crushes all opposition.

Russian are indeed grateful for his iron fist when it comes to the fight against the local thugs and hoods but why can't they have peace in their streets AND just leadership??  How does a former mid-level KGB operative become a billionaire without ever owning or running a company??  He steals it.

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

@YaValioCacaWates lol if you do a site: search on time you can find more than a few articles railing against the abusable power of the espionage act. But they're charging Snowden under the espionage act and now it's all okay.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@Sibir @mantisdragon91 So why are there so many dead reporters in Russia and so few convictions? And why is it particularly deadly to be a reporter critical of Putin or his allies?

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@mantisdragon91@Sibir 

 If you know nothing about the voting results - look in the directory - this information, even in the United States is not a secret... Check out surveys among the population. Good public opinion poll among the population before the elections and after the elections, as a rule, has an error of not more than 4%. Even if this is a foreign survey.

Putin won in the first round with a large margin from the competition. 

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Look at my very first comment to this article.

Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@mantisdragon91@Sibir 

If the political opponent or supporter is caught stealing an and his guilt is proved, (his co-defendant had already pleaded guilty) , he should sit in prison.  This is the essence of the law. The thief should sit in prison.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@Sibir @mantisdragon91 The article isn't about the US economy, but about Putin imprisoning another political opponent. So why are you trying so hard to change the subject?