Alexei Navalny: Putin critic loses appeal against jailing

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has lost an appeal against his jailing for violating the terms of a suspended sentence.

Russia's Alexei Navalny appears in court in Moscow, Russia
image captionIt is the first of two scheduled appearances in court on Saturday for Navalny

Navalny was detained last month after returning to Russia from Germany, where he was being treated for a near-fatal nerve agent attack.

He has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for the attack and says the charges against him are fabricated.

The Kremlin denies any involvement in his poisoning.

Navalny was accused of breaking the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for embezzlement that required him to report regularly to Russian police.

In court, in a speech that referenced both the Bible and the Harry Potter series, he argued the charges were “absurd” as he was unable to report to the police while recovering from the nerve agent attack.

“The whole world knew where I was,” he said. “Once I’d recovered, I bought a plane ticket and came home.”

But the judge rejected his case and he will return to jail. The judge did, though, cut his six weeks off the nearly three-year sentence imposed. 

Navalny faces another appearance in court in Saturday, on charges of slandering a World War Two veteran who praised President Putin.

The European Court of Human Rights, of which Russia is a member, says Navalny should be released out of concern for his life. But Russia said the call was “unlawful”.

Navalny’s supporters see the charges as an attempt to silence him and thwart his political ambitions.

He has been a persistent thorn in the side of President Putin, making allegations of corruption including a claim the president owns a lavish palace by the Black Sea.

Navalny’s allies are seeking to challenge pro-Kremlin parties in parliamentary elections this year, and President Vladimir Putin warned on Thursday against foreign interference.

European foreign ministers are set to meet on Monday to discuss imposing further sanctions on Russia over the case.

There are divisions among EU members, with Germany going ahead with the Nord Stream 2 project which would transfer gas directly from Russia to Germany.

The project is opposed by Poland and the Baltic states. On Friday Lithuania said it should be paused until after September’s parliamentary elections in Russia.

Source: BBC

Moscow court hears case for jailing Putin critic Navalny

A Moscow court is to decide shortly whether to turn Russian dissident Alexei Navalny’s suspended sentence into an actual prison term, as police detain more pro-Navalny protesters.

Many riot police – including some on horses – have been deployed outside the court. There have been some arrests.

The anti-Putin campaigner could face up to two and a half years, in a case that has sparked nationwide protests.

Mr Navalny, 44, calls the embezzlement charge fabricated.

The Russian OVD-Info monitoring group reported that 24 people had been detained near the court early on Tuesday.

Arrest near Moscow court, 2 Feb 21
image captionOne of Tuesday’s arrests: Police have cracked down hard on Navalny supporters

Mr Navalny’s return to Russia on 17 January triggered mass protests in support of him, many of them young Russians who have only ever experienced President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

He accuses Mr Putin of running an administration riddled with corruption, and recently released a YouTube video featuring an opulent Black Sea palace which, he alleged, was a Russian billionaires’ gift to the president. More than 100m people have watched it.

On Saturday Arkady Rotenberg, a billionaire businessman close to Mr Putin, said he owned the palace and had bought it two years ago.

The OVD-Info group said police detained more than 5,000 people at pro-Navalny protests in 86 cities across the country on Sunday. For a second weekend, crowds defied bitter cold and a massive deployment of riot police.

OVD-Info says it is an independent Russian media project documenting police action against various groups. It gets crowdfunding in Russia and its donors include the Memorial human rights group and the European Commission.

Mr Navalny has been accused of breaking probation rules which required him to report regularly to Russian police over the embezzlement charge. His lawyers say it is absurd he is accused of breaching probation, as the authorities knew he was recovering in Berlin after a nerve agent attack that nearly killed him.

He is already serving a 30-day sentence in connection with that case, which he denounces as politically motivated.

He spent months recovering from the Novichok poisoning – an attack he blamed directly on President Putin. The Kremlin has denied any involvement, and disputes the expert conclusion that Novichok was used.

Just before the court hearing began, Mr Navalny praised his wife Yulia, who is attending in court. She was fined 20,000 roubles (£190; $260) on Monday for having joined the pro-Navalny protesters at an “unauthorised” rally.

“They said that you had seriously violated public order and were a bad girl. I’m proud of you,” Mr Navalny said, quoted by Reuters news agency.

In recent days police have arrested many of Mr Navalny’s top aides, who assist him in his Anti-Corruption Network (FBK).

Biden raises election meddling with Putin in first phone call

US President Joe Biden has warned Russian leader Vladimir Putin about election meddling in their first call as counterparts, the White House says.

The conversation included a discussion about the ongoing opposition protests in Russia and an extension of the last remaining US-Russia nuclear arms pact.

Mr Putin congratulated the new US president on winning the election, according to a Russian statement.

Both parties said they agreed to maintain contact moving forward.

Former US President Donald Trump sometimes undercut his own administration’s tough posture on Russia and was accused by some of being too deferential to Mr Putin. 

But former President Barack Obama – under whom Mr Biden served as vice-president – was also criticised for failing to check the Kremlin as it annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine and muscled in on Syria.

What did the White House and Kremlin say about the call?

“President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defence of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies,” the White House said in a short statement, referencing the main talking points of Tuesday afternoon’s call but listing no further details.

The US said that the two presidents also discussed the massive SolarWinds cyber-attack, which has been blamed on Moscow; reports that the Kremlin placed bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan; and the poisoning of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny.

The Kremlin statement about the call did not refer to any points of friction the White House said had been raised by Mr Biden, who has in the past referred to Mr Putin as “a KGB thug”.

Russian officials said their president had “noted that the normalisation of relations between Russia and the United States would meet the interests of both countries and – taking into account their special responsibility for maintaining security and stability in the world – of the entire international community”.

“On the whole, the conversation between the leaders of Russia and the United States was of a business-like and frank nature,” the Kremlin statement added.

The two leaders appeared to seal an agreement to renew New Start, an Obama-era accord that limits the amounts of warheads, missiles and launchers in the US-Russian nuclear arsenals.

It was due to expire next month, and Mr Trump had refused to sign on.

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Biden doesn’t want a confrontation

Analysis box by Barbara Plett-Usher, State Department correspondent

Joe Biden had indicated he would be tougher on Vladimir Putin than Donald Trump, who refused to take on the Kremlin and frequently cast doubt on Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

On that matter Mr Biden made his sharpest break with Mr Trump, reportedly telling Mr Putin that he knew Russia had tried to meddle in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. He also warned the Russian president that the US was ready to defend itself against cyber-espionage, and any other attacks.

Despite Mr Trump’s conciliatory approach, the Kremlin did not benefit from his presidency, because his administration heavily sanctioned Russians for issues ranging from Ukraine to attacks on dissidents. Joe Biden and his foreign policy team will take a robust position on human rights and Mr Putin’s intentions in Europe.

But they are not looking for a confrontation.

Rather, they hope to manage relations and co-operate where possible. In that vein, the two presidents did agree to work at completing the extension of the new Start arms control treaty before it expires next month.

What else did Biden do today?

The call with the Kremlin comes as Mr Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 78-22.

Mr Biden later appeared at the White House to sign four executive orders aimed at addressing what he called US systemic racism.

“This is the time to act and it’s to act because it’s what the core values of this nation call us to do. I believe the vast majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents share these values and want us to act as well,” said Mr Biden.

The president directed the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private prison operators, though activists noted the order does not cover privately run immigration detention centres.

Mr Biden also directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to take steps to eradicate racism from housing policy.

According to the Washington Post, the department will reinstate a 2013 rule on “disparate impact” that aims to block the real estate sector from requiring tenants to undergo criminal background checks, or using artificial intelligence to forecast creditworthiness.

The new orders also recommit the US government to respect tribal sovereignty. This is not seen as a significant change from existing federal policy, but some Native American officials have said their objections to public land decisions were ignored under the Trump administration.

Mr Biden also signed a directive rejecting coronavirus-related discrimination against the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities.

Mr Biden also announced on Tuesday that his administration planned to buy 100 million more doses each of Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine so as to inoculate nearly every American by this summer’s end.

Obama: What he really thought of Putin and other leaders

Former US President Barack Obama likens Russia’s Vladimir Putin to a tough Chicago “ward boss” and describes former French President Nicolas Sarkozy as being full of “overblown rhetoric” in the first volume of his two-part memoir.

A Promised Land sold nearly 890,000 copies in the US and Canada in its first 24 hours – a record for publisher Penguin Random House. It is expected to become by far the biggest-selling presidential memoir in history.

In the book, Mr Obama recalls his travels around the world as the 44th US president and his meetings with world leaders. So who made a good impression and who didn’t?

David Cameron

The Eton-educated conservative who served as UK prime minister from 2010-2016 was “urbane and confident” and had “the easy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life”. Mr Obama said he warmed to him as a person (“I liked him personally, even when we butted heads”) but made no secret of the fact that he disagreed with his economic policies. “Cameron hewed closely to free-market orthodoxy, having promised voters that his platform of deficit reduction and cuts to government services – along with regulatory reform and expanded trade – would usher in a new era of British competitiveness,” he wrote. “Instead, predictably, the British economy would fall deeper into a recession.”

David Cameron and Barack Obama played golf at The Grove Golf Course near Watford, England, on April 23, 2016
image captionDavid Cameron and Barack Obama enjoyed a game of golf together during the US president’s visit in 2016

Vladimir Putin

Mr Obama said the Russian leader reminded him of the political barons he encountered during his early career in Chicago. He writes he was “like a ward [district] boss, except with nukes and a UN Security Council veto”.

He continues: “Putin did, in fact, remind me of the sorts of men who had once run the Chicago machine or Tammany Hall [a New York City political organisation] – tough, street-smart, unsentimental characters who knew what they knew, who never moved outside their narrow experiences, and who viewed patronage, bribery, shakedowns, fraud, and occasional violence as legitimate tools of the trade.”

Nicolas Sarkozy

The former French president was “all emotional outbursts and overblown rhetoric” and like “a figure out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting”, according to Mr Obama. “Conversations with Sarkozy were by turns amusing and exasperating, his hands in perpetual motion, his chest thrust out like a bantam cock’s, his personal translator… always beside him to frantically mirror his every gesture and intonation as the conversation swooped from flattery to bluster to genuine insight, never straying from his primary, barely disguised interest, which was to be at the centre of the action and take credit for whatever it was that might be worth taking credit for.”

Barack Obama listens to his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on January 10, 2011
image captionBarack Obama said he liked Nicolas Sarkozy’s “boldness, charm and manic energy”

Angela Merkel

The German leader is referred to as “steady, honest, intellectually rigorous, and instinctually kind”. Mr Obama notes that she had, at first, been sceptical of him, because of his lofty rhetoric and speech-making skills. “I took no offence, figuring that as a German leader, an aversion to possible demagoguery was probably a healthy thing.”

Barack Obama is greeted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel upon arrival at the chancellery on November 17, 2016 in Berlin
image captionBarack Obama described Angela Merkel as “honest” and “kind”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Mr Obama found the Turkish leader to be “cordial and generally responsive to my requests”.

“But whenever I listened to him speak, his tall frame slightly stooped, his voice a forceful staccato that rose an octave in response to various grievances or perceived slights. I got the strong impression that his commitment to democracy and the rule of law might last only as long as it preserved his own power.”

Manmohan Singh

The former Indian prime minister is described as having been “wise, thoughtful, and scrupulously honest” and the “chief architect of India’s economic transformation”. Mr Singh was a “self-effacing technocrat who’d won the people’s trust not by appealing to their passions but bringing about higher living standards and maintaining a well-earned reputation for not being corrupt”, Mr Obama observes.

Barack Obama poses for a photo with his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus (C) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at Prague Castle on April 8, 2010
image captionBarack Obama met Václav Klaus (c) and the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in 2010

Václav Klaus

Mr Obama was an admirer of Václav Havel – the Czech Republic’s first president after the Velvet Revolution – but found his successor Václav Klaus more troubling. Mr Obama writes that he feared the Eurosceptic president signalled a rise of right-wing populism across Europe and embodied “how the economic crisis [of 2008-9] was causing an uptick in nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and scepticism about [European] integration”. He added: “The hopeful tide of democratisation, liberalisation, and integration that had swept the globe after the end of the Cold War was beginning to recede.”

Barack Obama's memoir "A Promised Land" goes on sale ahead of the holiday season at Barnes & Noble Union Square on November 17, 2020 in New York
image captionA Promised Land is the first volume of Barack Obama’s planned two-part memoir