Russia: Political activist Aleksei Navalny must be released after ‘parody’ trial

Amnesty International is calling for the immediate release of the popular opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, who was sentenced today to five years in a Russian prison colony for embezzlement.“From the start there were clear indications that the criminal prosecution of Aleksei Navalny was politically motivated and based on highly questionable charges of embezzlement,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International. “This was not a fair trial, the charges didn’t add up and expert evidence was excluded. Any retrial must address these glaring deficiencies.”Aleksei Navalny is a popular Russian blogger and anti-corruption campaigner and has been a key figure in several mass street protests in recent years. He has actively campaigned against election fraud and the re-election of President Vladimir Putin and the ruling Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) party. Over the years he has exposed a range of abuses by several senior political figures from the ruling (United Russia) party and others close to the Kremlin. He has also revealed a number of large scale embezzlement schemes, including alleged high-level corruption involving major Russian state-owned oil companies. “The trial cannot be seen outside the context of the political harassment of Aleksei Navalny and his supporters, and appears to be linked to his campaigning against corruption and political activities in recent years,” said Dalhuisen.Aleksei Navalny and co-defendant, businessman Petr Ofitserov, who was jailed for four years, were charged with “particularly grievous” embezzlement. Previously the case was dropped twice for lack of evidence, before being reopened on the personal instruction of Russia’s top investigator.The prosecution alleged that in 2009, when Navalny was an advisor to the Kirov Region Governor, he abused his position by imposing a timber supply deal between a company headed by Petr Ofitserov and the state owned company Kirovles. They argued that the contract resulted in the misappropriation of more than RUB 16 million (USD 490,000) to the state. However, the prosecution and the court in turn disregarded the fact that Petr Ofitserov’s company had paid around RUB 14 million (USD 430,000) in the deal. The judge declined the defence’s request that an independent expert be allowed to testify in court on whether the deal was commercially viable or below market value.“This was a parody of a prosecution and a parody of a trial. The charges were based on a manifestly erroneous assessment of the loss incurred by the state, while the evidence that Aleksei Navalny abused his position to force through the sale was inconclusive; none was even presented to suggest that he personally profited financially from the transaction,” said Dalhuisen.“It demonstrates how the Russian authorities abuse criminal prosecutions to persecute government critics and suppress political opposition and civil activism. This fits into the broader crackdown on the freedoms of expression, association and assembly under way in Russia today.”