MOSCOW – A new trial against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny opened Tuesday at the penal colony where he faces another lengthy prison term, a further step in a yearlong, multi-pronged crackdown on Russia's most ardent Kremlin critic, his allies and other dissenting voices.
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's longtime foe, is charged with fraud and contempt of court. His allies denounced the case as an effort by the Kremlin to keep the anti-corruption crusader in prison for as long as possible.
Authorities moved the trial to the prison colony hours away from Moscow, where Navalny is serving a sentence for parole violations. The move received criticism for effectively limiting access to the proceedings for the media and supporters.
Navalny, 45, appeared in the makeshift courtroom on Tuesday wearing a prison uniform.
“It is just that these people, who ordered this trial, are really scared,” he said during the hearing. “(Scared) of what I say during this trial, of people seeing that the case is obviously fabricated.”
Navalny can receive up to 15 years in prison, if convicted, his allies have said, on top of the time he was ordered to serve last year.
The unusual trial got underway as world leaders are preoccupied with another round of tensions between Russia and the West fueled by fears that Russia plans to invade its ex-Soviet neighbor.
Asked about Navalny at a news conference Tuesday after a round of talks with Putin in the Kremlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reaffirmed that “his conviction is incompatible with the principles of the rule of law.”
Scholz was vice chancellor in 2020 when Navalny was brought to Germany for treatment for a nerve agent poisoning that the dissident blamed on the Kremlin, accusations that Russian officials have denied.
Navalny was arrested in January 2021 immediately upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months convalescing. Shortly after the arrest, a court sentenced him to 2 1/2 years in prison over the parole violations stemming from a 2014 suspended sentence in a fraud case that Navalny insists was politically motivated.
Following Navalny's imprisonment, authorities unleashed a sweeping crackdown on his associates and supporters. His closest allies have left Russia after facing multiple criminal charges, and his Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of nearly 40 regional offices were outlawed as extremist — a designation that exposes people involved to prosecution.
Earlier this month, Russian officials added Navalny and a number of his associates to a state registry of extremists and terrorists.
Several criminal cases have been launched against Navalny individually, leading his associates to suggest the Kremlin intends to keep him behind bars for as long as possible.
“Navalny is in prison as a politician. He spoke the truth, ran for president, and for that Putin tried to kill him and then sent him to prison," a close Navalny ally, Ivan Zhdanov, wrote on Facebook this month. "And there are no doubts that Putin will come up with more and more political cases.”
The prosecution in the current trial accuses Navalny of embezzling money that he and his foundation raised over the years and of insulting a judge during his trial last year for allegedly slandering a World War II veteran. Navalny has rejected the allegations as bogus.
“I understand that this is attempt to intimidate: 'If you say something, if you don’t just keep quiet, don’t nod obediently, aren't afraid of us, judges and prosecutors ... then we will rubber-stamp one criminal case after another,'" Navalny said in an address to the court. "Well, go ahead. By all means, rubber-stamp. I won't keep silent anyway."
Members of Navalny's defense team complained they were not allowed to bring cellphones or laptops containing case files into the makeshift courtroom at the IK-2 penal colony. The prison is located in the Vladimir region, 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Moscow.
Media access to the hearing, which was formally declared open, was also severely restricted Tuesday.
Navalny's wife, Yulia, was allowed to attend the trial on Tuesday. Photos published by Russia's independent news site Mediazona showed the couple hugging and laughing during a hearing recess.
In an emotional Instagram post on Monday, Yulia Navalnaya said she had a long family visit scheduled for Wednesday — one of the four that Navalny is allowed annually. She said she fears her husband's trial would interfere with the visit.
“They did it on purpose. You wanted a visit from your family? You're better off facing a farcical court right in prison,” Navalnaya wrote.
The court, however, adjourned on Tuesday evening until Feb. 21.
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.