A Russian court on Tuesday found jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny guilty on embezzlement charges that could see his prison sentence significantly extended as Moscow seeks to wipe out remaining pockets of dissent.
“Navalny committed fraud — the theft of property by an organised group,” judge Margarita Kotova said, according to an AFP reporter present at the trial.
She also found him guilty on a less severe charge of contempt of court.
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal domestic critic, was jailed last year on old fraud charges after surviving a poison attack with Novichok nerve agent that he blames on the Kremlin.
The trial on Tuesday concerned additional embezzlement and contempt of court charges and Navalny had been tried at the prison colony outside Moscow where he is already serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence.
Navalny appeared in the makeshift court wearing his black prison uniform, with journalists watching via a video link.
He listened closely as judge Kotova read out the verdict, sometimes smiling, an AFP reporter said.
Investigators accused Navalny of stealing for personal use several million dollars’ worth of donations that were given to his political organisations.
The prosecutor last week called for Navalny’s sentence to be extended to 13 years and for him to be transferred to a “strict regime” penal colony, which would place him in harsher conditions.
Navalny denies the charges.
The corruption charges carry a maximum penalty of 10 years, while contempt of court is punishable by up to six months.
The prosecutor also called for him to pay a fine of 1.2 million rubles ($11,500 or 10,500 euros).
– Pressure on media and NGOs –
Before he was jailed, Navalny was Russia’s main opposition leader and his team frequently published investigations into the wealth of Russia’s elites that garnered millions of views on YouTube.
Navalny’s poisoning in 2020 with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, and arrest on his return from rehabilitation in Germany last year, sparked widespread condemnation abroad, as well as sanctions from Western capitals.
After his arrest, Navalny’s political organisations across the country were declared “extremist” and shut down, while many key aides fled Russia fearing prosecution.
Russia has also ramped up pressure on independent media and NGOs, declaring many to be “foreign agents”, while others have stopped operating for fear of prosecution.
More closures of media outlets followed after Russia passed a new law introducing up to 15 years in jail for “fake news” about what Russia calls its “military operation” in Ukraine.
In an effort to further control the information available to its domestic audience, Russia this month restricted access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and has blocked the websites of several independent news outlets.
On Instagram, Navalny has denounced the conflict in Ukraine and called on his supporters to protest despite the high likelihood of fines and arrest.
More than 15,000 people have been detained at Ukraine demonstrations across Russia since the start of the “military operation”, according to independent monitor OVD-Info.