Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail on Tuesday after a court found he had violated the terms of a suspended 2014 conviction, drawing an outpouring of international outcry.
The sentence handed down by the court was for three and a half years in prison, but the Simonovsky District Court reduced Navalny’s prison time to two years and eight months because he had already served one year under house arrest.
The ruling came despite sizeable protests across the country calling for his release, with many taking to the streets in spite of violent efforts to corral demonstrators by the Russian military and mass arrests.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada “strongly condemns” the decision to imprison Navalny and called for the “immediate release” of the jailed opposition leader, protesters and journalists.
“The justice system must never be abused for political purposes,” he said in a tweet.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said the country was “appalled.” Global Affairs Canada added “the best way to address these types of actions is for Canada to work with its partners in a coordinated fashion,” in an emailed statement to Global News.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also joined in, adding that he would be co-ordinating with allies “to hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens.”
“The United States is deeply concerned by Russian authorities’ decision to sentence opposition figure Aleksey Navalny to two years and eight months imprisonment, replacing his suspended sentence with jail time,” he said in an online statement.
“We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called for the “immediate release” of Navalny following his sentence in Moscow.
“The U.K. calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Alexey Navalny and all of the peaceful protesters and journalists arrested over the last two weeks,” he said in a statement to Global News.
“Today’s perverse ruling, targeting the victim of a poisoning rather than those responsible, shows Russia is failing to meet the most basic commitments expected of any responsible member of the international community.”
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also demanded Navalny be released, tweeting that “the sentencing of Alexey @navalny runs counter (to) Russia’s international commitments on rule of law & fundamental freedoms.”
He cited the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling on the 2014 embezzlement claim against Navalny, which concluded that his sentence was “unlawful and arbitrary” and “politically motivated.”
Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry, told other countries to “deal with their own problems,” Russian media outlet RBC reported.
“For the last few weeks we have been in a state of comments and responses to similar attacks and statements. You should not interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” she said.
Navalny, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was arrested on Jan. 17 in passport control after his flight from Berlin to Moscow, which Russian authorities said violated terms of his parole over a suspended money-laundering conviction in 2014.
During court proceedings, Navalny said he was unable to meet the conditions for his parole because he was recovering from being poisoned.
“I came back to Moscow after I completed the course of treatment,” he said. “What else could I have done?”
Navalny was in Germany for five months recovering after being poisoned by a deadly military-grade nerve agent called Novichok, which he said was part of an attempt to assassinate him. Putin has denied the accusations.
“Someone did not want me to take a single step on my country’s territory as a free man. And we know who and we know why — the hatred and fear of one man, living in a bunker, whom I offended by surviving when he tried to have me killed,” he said, adding that Putin would go down in history as a “poisoner.”
“The aim of that hearing is to scare a great number of people,” Navalny said. “You can’t jail the entire country.”
His imprisonment inspired a large wave of protests across Russia, where more than 5,000 people were arrested on Sunday, including roughly 2,000 in Moscow.
Shortly after landing in Russia, Navalny’s team released an investigation into an opulent palace Navalny claims was built for Putin on the Black Sea. It has garnered more than 100 million views on YouTube so far. Putin later denied owning the property.
Lisa Sundstrom, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, said the video was “pretty persuasive about the levels of corruption that are in the government,” in a previous interview with Global News.
“It’s like a tinder box,” she said.
“(Russian officials) just want to prevent anyone who’s likely to be able to organize a lot of opposition protests from doing so in an organized manner.”
OVD-info, an independent activist group that tracks arrests at Russian protests, said 750 people have been arrested since Navalny’s sentencing. In court, the Russian opposition leader urged them to keep demonstrating.
“Millions can’t be jailed,” he said.
“You have stolen people’s future and you are now trying to scare them. I’m urging all not to be afraid.”
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press