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Science | History | Geography | Citizenship

Global outcry as Putin critic Navalny jailed

Can one brave individual defeat a powerful state? By returning to Russia and risking imprisonment after an attempt on his life, Alexei Navalny has thrown down the gauntlet to Putin. There was a commotion on the aeroplane as the pilot made his announcement. “For technical reasons”, the flight bound for Moscow’s Vnukovo airport would land at Sheremetyevo instead. But everyone knew the truth was more sinister. On board was Russia’s opposition leader, Alexei Navalny – a man threatened with prison if he returned to the country. The authorities must be waiting to arrest him. That indeed was the case. The plane had been diverted because thousands of Navalny’s supporters had gathered at Vnukovo to greet him. The government, worried that they would intervene to save him, had filled the arrivals hall with riot police. Some of Navalny’s top associates were arrested as they sat in the airport café. On landing, he was coolness itself. “I know that I'm right. I fear nothing,” he told his fellow passengers, who included many journalists. When he arrived at passport control, he asked the black-uniformed officials: “Have you been waiting for me long?” The officials told him that unless he came with them quietly, they would use force. As his wife Yulia kissed him goodbye, she wiped something – perhaps a tear – from his cheek. Then, he was led away. His lawyer was not allowed to accompany him. Navalny’s journey to his homeland from the safety of Germany was either extraordinarily brave or ridiculously foolhardy, depending on how you look at it. Just five months ago, he collapsed on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow after being poisoned. Only emergency treatment in Germany, made possible by pressure from the international community, saved his life. It emerged afterwards that the FSB had followed him to Tomsk. In a phone conversation, Navalny managed to fool an FSB agent into confessing that they had tried to kill him using Novichok. Navalny would not have been the first of Vladimir Putin’s critics to meet a violent end. In 2006, ex-Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking tea poisoned with a radioactive substance in a London hotel. That same year Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist investigating state corruption, was shot dead at her apartment block. In 2013, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky was found hanged at his home in Berkshire. And in 2015, the former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in central Moscow. The official reason for Navalny’s arrest is that, after receiving a suspended sentence for embezzlement, he violated probation. New charges have now been added, accusing him of defrauding charities including his own Anti-Corruption Foundation. Navalny maintains that all these accusations have been fabricated for political reasons. But a judge has ordered that he be held in custody for 30 days, until a parole review that could result in a prison sentence. Navalny has called for mass protests next Saturday. Can one brave individual defeat a powerful state? Disputing with Putin Some say, no: the forces supporting Putin are too huge. In 2000, he took direct control of the FSB, with its 66,000 personnel; in 2003, he added the Border Guard Service, with a further 200,000. He is also commander-in-chief of all of Russia’s armed forces. He has shown himself to be completely ruthless, and criticism from other countries would not stop him having an enemy locked up or murdered. Others point out that other apparently immovable governments have been toppled by opposition led by an inspiring person. The apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end thanks to Nelson Mandela’s leadership. The playwright Vaclav Havel played a key role in undermining support for Communism in Czechoslovakia. Like Mandela, he ended up as president after years in prison. KeywordsEmbezzlement - Navalny has twice received suspended sentences for the theft of funds. He denied the accusations and his convictions sparked large-scale protests.

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