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Why was Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny arrested upon his arrival in Russia?

DW, 18 Jan 2021
After recovering in Berlin from reported Novichok poisoning, opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been arrested upon his return to Russia. Supporters say he is a political prisoner.

The press was denied entry into the airport's arrival hall. A public event to meet Navalny at the airport that was organized online was quickly declared illegal. Countless activists and opposition figures were warned to stay away from Vnukovo, and Russian police officers made personal house calls to many of Navalny's confidants. The government did its utmost to attract as little attention as possible for the return of the "Berlin patient," as he is often called by the Kremlin. Just minutes before the plane's scheduled landing, authorities redirected the flight to a different airport outside the Russian capital. But their efforts appear to have done nothing to quell admiration for Navalny, whose supporters are calling him a hero — all the more so after his arrest.

It is unclear how long Navalny will remain behind bars. Officially, he stands accused of violating conditions of a suspended sentence for a 2014 fraud conviction, which international observers have criticized as unfounded. Russian police say Navalny failed to properly register his stay in Germany with them as required by his sentence. A court must now decide if the rest of Navalny's suspended sentence should be served in prison. In addition, new charges were leveled against him in December. He now stands accused of embezzling donations to his anti-corruption foundation. Critics say it is yet another attempt to silence the politician.

Moscow denies any involvement in Navalny's poisoning. Instead, Kremlin officials have repeatedly raised accusations of a Western-backed plot and have refused to investigate the attack. During his yearly press conference in December 2020, Putin responded to a question about Navalny's poisoning with sarcasm: "Who needs him? If we had wanted to do that, then we would have seen it through to the end." His comments came after Navalny said that a "killer unit" of Russia's internal security service, the FSB, was responsible for the attempt on his life. Navalny also says he called one of his alleged assassins under a false name, prompting the agent to admit to being involved in the poisoning.

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