Ilya Shablinsky: The unprecedented sentence given to Aleksei Navalny – 19 Years in maximum security. And for what? [, 9 August 2023]

9 August 2023


On August 4, Aleksei Navalny was sentenced to 19 years in a maximum-security prison, the most severe of all detention facilities. The verdict was handed down by a Moscow judge who had arrived at Penal Colony No. 6 in the Vladimir region specifically for this purpose, and who declared the trial closed on the very first day.

In the last decade, sentences of a similar length have only been handed down in Belarus — by order of their dictator. In Belarus, notably, presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka was sentenced to 14 years in prison in July 2021. He was accused of economic crimes — this was more convenient for the government. At the same time the court in Homel sentenced blogger and opposition activist Syarhey Tsikhanouski to 18 years in a strict-regime prison. Similar sentences were handed down to his associates: in particular there was the politician Nikolai Statkevich, who ran for president in 2010 and received 14 years in prison; and moderator of the social media project “Country for Life” Dmitry Popov received 16 years. I should add that in Belarus the court hearings were open, although understandably this didn’t make things easier for the defendants.

But in, say Azerbaijan, where an authoritarian regime or hereditary monarchy has long been established, the terms oppositionists receive are much shorter. For example, Tofig Yagublu, a longtime political opponent of Ilham Aliyev, was recently given a four-year prison sentence for “incitement to mass disorder.” 

An important aspect of Navalny’s trial is that no one — except those directly involved, who cannot give interviews but keep the secrets of closed court sessions — can really say what the opposition leader’s crimes are. Everything is classified.

We know the general idea of the charge: creating an “extremist community” (Article 282.1, Part 3, of the Russian Criminal Code). This, of course, is the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). The next charge is public calls to “extremism” (Article 280, Parts 1 & 2, of the Russian Criminal Code). The reason for the case seem to be posts written by former FBK cameraman Pavel Zelensky and a speech made by a participant at a rally in Ufa in 2017. Not Navalny. So what is he being charged with? What exactly are his extremist actions? It’s unclear.

It’s logical to assume that both Aleksei Navalny and Navalny.Live‘s technical director Daniel Kholodny were charged with the same crime as the employees of the FBK, which was recognized as an “extremist organization” in 2021. However, even in that case it was unclear what the FBK employees did that the court deemed extremist activity, as described in the Federal Law “On Countering Extremism.” This law lists 12 types of extremism. But the court refused to declassify the materials from the prosecutor’s office’s lawsuit against the FBK that recognized the foundation as extremist. During the trial, the prosecutor’s office provided the judge with blank sheets of paper as evidence! The defence requested that they be withdrawn from the case file. The prosecutor then stated in public interviews that extremism was expressed in the FBK’s goals, which were stated as “creating conditions to change the foundations of the constitutional order, including a ‘colour revolution.'”

But these types of extremist acts are not to be found in the law.

In a message transmitted by his lawyer, Navalny wrote: this sentence is not for him, but for us all. In essence, it is. This is a warning and a threat to all potential discontents – 19 years should intimidate them. But there is also, of course, an element of a dictator’s personal revenge against his personal enemy. We do not know, in truth, the mechanism of interaction between the dictator and the siloviki when determining such terms: whether the prosecutors themselves obsequiously put forward new charges for the opposition leader, or receive orders from the administration. But this doesn’t matter. What is important is that we are witnessing an ominous spectacle that was not seen even in Brezhnev’s times. Attempts to poison opponents of the regime, who are then locked up in prison camps under hellish conditions, in hopes of finishing what was started. I think this would have astounded Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, who received the then maximum sentence of seven years in the camps under Brezhnev.

On the legal side there is nothing to even speak of. There are no rights here at all. It is no wonder the judge declared the case closed.

A metaphor is appropriate here. Finding extremism in the actions of the FBK led by Navalny is about the same as finding extremism in the actions of a hockey team who threw a dozen pucks at the goal of another team patronized by the authorities. This is not even much of an exaggeration. There are likewise dissemination of unpleasant information for the authorities about an offensive defeat, unsanctioned gatherings of supporters, and other such things. The competition has eagerly been watched for a number of years, and players precisely followed the rules of the game, as they were accepted to be at the time. And then, suddenly, these rules changed in one moment, and everyone was told that it was possible to lay blame for acts that were not considered a crime at the time of their occurrence. And to put them in jail. Contrary to the Constitution (Article 54) – but the Constitution is to be forgotten.

Yes, judges, passing barbaric sentences, play the most shameful role in this process. However, let’s not forget a few details. The judge who asked that Navalny be told she was sorry about the decision she handed down in his case (on replacing a suspended sentence with a term of imprisonment) died suddenly a few months later. And judges are aware of this. And we have a better idea of who we are dealing with in terms of the current authorities.

The fate of Aleksei Navalny was recently compared with the fate of Nelson Mandela. There is meaning in such a comparison. But the attitude of the South African authorities toward Mandela was different: he was looked upon as a dangerous criminal, but they did not seek to harass him, to torture him using isolation. They even gave him the opportunity to graduate from the University of London in absentia. And Mandela in the 1960s really did not rule out violence in the revolutionary struggle.The situation with Navalny is one of the personal enemy of a dictator. All that we can do now is attentively follow his fate and do that which his associate, Daniel Kholodny (who received from the same judge a sentence of 8 years in the camps), requested: not be silent.

Translated by Nina dePalma and Alyssa Rider

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