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In prison and on trial Here’s why Alexey Navalny is back in court and facing up to 15 more years behind bars

Source: Meduza
Evgeny Feldman / Meduza

Russia’s latest criminal trial of jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny got underway on Tuesday, February 15. Already serving a nearly three-year prison sentence, Navalny now stands accused of fraud and contempt of court — charges that could prolong his incarceration by up to 15 years. In a strange twist, Moscow’s Lefortovsky District Court held Tuesday’s hearing offsite, at the penal colony in the Vladimir region where Navalny has been in custody since February 2021. In the following explainer, Meduza asks and answers key questions about the proceedings.

What is Navalny on trial for?

According to the website of the Moscow courts, Navalny is charged with four counts of major fraud and two counts of contempt of court. 

The Russian Investigative Committee launched a fraud case against Navalny at the end of December 2020, accusing him of misappropriating more than 356 million rubles ($4.7 million) worth of donations from his now-outlawed nonprofits and political network. Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mikhailova told Novaya Gazeta that her client is currently on on trial for four counts of major fraud that were separated from the “big fraud case [that’s] still being investigated.” (This means investigators could bring additional charges against Navalny at a later date as part of the same case.)

On the eve of Tuesday’s trial, Navalny’s team released a YouTube video and report breaking down the substance of the charges. According to the report, each count of fraud is tied to a complaint from a specific donor. Navalny’s associates claim that two of these victims were “shills,” while the other two were were real donors who were pressured into testifying against the opposition leader. In total, these four people donated nearly 2.7 million rubles (around $35,500) to Navalny’s cause. 

Alexander Koshelev donated exactly 1.02 million rubles (nearly $13,500 today) to Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (the FBK) on December 28, 2020 — the Russian Investigative Committee launched the fraud case against Navalny the very next day. Koshelev wired the money directly to the FBK’s bank account, despite the fact that this account number was never made public. Navalny’s associates note that the donation was just over one million rubles — meaning it was just enough to press the highest degree of fraud charges against Navalny. Team Navalny believes Koshelev was a plant.

Mikhail Kostenko donated 50,100 rubles ($660 today) to Navalny’s presidential campaign on August 31, 2017. According to Team Navalny, Kostenko’s step-daughter is married to a lawyer who is an old acquaintance and work colleague of pro-Kremlin blogger Ilya Remeslo. Remeslo has accused Navalny of fraud in the past and even lodged formal complaints against him (you can read more about Ilya Remeslo here). Team Navalny believes Kostenko was a plant, as well. 

Vyacheslav Kuzin is a local deputy in Samara who was once the majority shareholder of Volga Social Bank. From 2015 to 2019 he made 58 payments to Navalny’s organizations, donating nearly 958,000 rubles in total (around $12,650 today). Kuzin is currently under house arrest awaiting trial on charges of financial crimes that carry up to 10 years in prison. Navalny’s associates believe that Kuzin was forced to testify against Navalny and that his past donations were genuine. 

Alexander Karyukhin is an entrepreneur who has made 45 separate donations to Navalny’s organizations since 2017, totaling nearly 666,000 rubles (almost $8,800 today). In 2011, his company was prosecuted for tax evasion — Navalny’s associates believe this made Karyukhin vulnerable to pressure. However, they believe his donations to Navalny’s cause were genuine. 

So far the proceedings include four counts of fraud, but there could be more “victims” still to come. 

The two counts of contempt of court are in connection with a 2021 trial that found Navalny guilty of defaming World War II veteran Ignat Artemenko. 

According to Navalny’s associates, the Kremlin critic was charged based on 104 comments he made during the defamation trial. State investigators maintain that Navalny insulted the judges and other participants in the proceedings (such as the prosecutor and Ignat Artemenko’s grandson). 

The following are a few examples of Navalny’s “insulting” comments during the trial: 

  • “Are you aware of the fact that you and members of your family forged documents for your grandfather?”
  • “You’re on a slippery slope.”
  • “Your Honor, you’re breaking the law.”
  • “Dammit…”

Is bundling charges like fraud and contempt of court into a single trial a normal procedure? 

The proceedings may seem odd but Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mikhailova says there’s no violation here. “[From] a purely logical [standpoint] of course this is strange, but in actual fact the Criminal Procedure Code allows the investigator to do this if necessary,” Mikhailova told BBC News Russian. 

Is holding a trial at a prison facility legal?

In principle, Russian law doesn’t prohibit holding trials outside of a courthouse. When Navalny returned to Russia in January 2021, he was immediately jailed for 30 days following a remand hearing that took place in a police station — this wasn’t a direct violation of the law either. 

Be that as it may, it remains unclear why the court opted against bringing Navalny to Moscow and instead decided to come to him and hold an offsite hearing at the prison. There is no official explanation for this choice. Navalny’s associates think the authorities are trying to make it as difficult as possible for the media to cover the proceedings: access to prisons is restricted, which makes attending this formally open-door trial practically impossible. 

The Moscow City Court opened media accreditation for the offsite trial on February 14, noting that “due to the restrictions induced by the spread of the new coronavirus infection, the number of places is limited” (Meduza’s own accreditation request didn’t even receive a response).

Evgeny Feldman / Meduza

That same day, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, posted a public statement on Instagram demanding that she be allowed to attend the hearing. In the end, Yulia Navalnaya and a handful of journalists were allowed into the prison for the trial, but they had to watch the proceedings on a television in a separate room (as pictured below). 

How long will Navalny be in prison if he is convicted?

At present, Navalny is due to be released in the fall of 2023. But if he is convicted of multiple counts of fraud, he will face up to 15 more years in prison — and the contempt of court charges could result in several additional months behind bars.

What does the Russian Criminal Code say exactly?

Article 159. Fraud

4. Fraud, committed by an organized group, or on an especially large scale, or resulting in the deprivation of a citizen’s right to housing,

Shall be punishable by imprisonment for a term of up to 10 years, with or without a fine in the amount of 1 million rubles [$13,260], or in the amount of wages or other income of the convicted person for a period of up to three years, and with or without restrictions on freedom for a term of up to two years.

As Team Navalny’s head of legal explained on Twitter, because there are multiple counts of major fraud against Navalny, the Criminal Code stipulates that his punishment can be no more than 1.5 times the maximum penalty — that is, up to 15 years behind bars.

Article 297. Contempt of Court

1. Contempt of court, which finds expression in the insult of the trial participants,

Shall be punishable by a fine in the amount of up to 80,000 rubles [$1,060] or in the amount of wages or other income of the convicted person for a period of up to six months, or by compulsory works for a term of up to 480 hours, or by arrest for a term of up to four months.

2. The same deed, that has found its expression in the insult of a judge, juror, or any other person participating in the dispensation of justice,

Shall be punishable by a fine in the amount of up to 200,000 rubles [$2,650] or in the amount of wages or other income of the convicted person for a period of up to 18 months, or by compulsory works for a term of up to 480 hours, or by corrective labor for a term of up to two years, or by arrest for a term of up to six months. 

Last year, Navalny calculated that in the worst case scenario, taking into account all of the criminal cases against him, he would be released from prison in the spring of 2051. 

Navalny’s trial is scheduled to resume on Monday, February 21.
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#FreeNavalny Supporters rally in cities around the world one year after Alexey Navalny was arrested upon returning to Russia

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#FreeNavalny Supporters rally in cities around the world one year after Alexey Navalny was arrested upon returning to Russia

Explainer by Denis Dmitriev

Translated and updated by Eilish Hart

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