Opponent Alexei Navalny arrested on return to Russia

The main Russian opponent, Alexey Navalny, was arrested by the prison services on Sunday as soon as he arrived in Moscow from Germany, where he was recovering from suspected poisoning, prompting immediate condemnation from the EU and the US.

A charismatic anti-corruption activist and sworn enemy of the Kremlin, Mr. Navalny, 44, has been wanted since the end of December by the FSIN, the prison service in Russia, which blames him for violating the conditions of a conditional sentence he received in 2014.

As he was preparing to give his passport for border control, alongside his wife Yulia, the opponent was approached by several uniformed police officers who took him away, AFP journalists said.

โ€œHe will remain in detention until the decision of the courtโ€ on his case, the FSIN said, without specifying when it could take place.

โ€œHere is my home. I am not afraid (…) because I know that I am right and that the criminal cases against me are made from scratch. I am not afraid of anything and I call you not to be afraid of anything,โ€ Navalny said shortly before his arrest.

European Council President Charles Michel considered Mr Navalny‘s arrest โ€œunacceptableโ€, demanding his โ€œimmediateโ€ release. Lithuania called for new sanctions against Moscow and Poland to a โ€œrapid and unequivocal response at EU levelโ€. France, for its part, indicated that it had learned the information โ€œwith great concernโ€, calling for โ€œhis immediate releaseโ€.

US President-elect Joe Biden’s future national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, also called for the release of the opponent and โ€œhold accountableโ€ the perpetrators of his poisoning in August.

The prison services had threatened as early as Thursday to arrest Alexei Navalny if he set foot back in Russia. They criticize him for failing to report to them twice a month, as required by the conditions of a five-year suspended prison sentence for embezzlement against him, which the opponent denounces as politically motivated.

He has also been subject to a new fraud investigation since the end of December, suspected of having spent 356 million rubles (โ‚ฌ3.9 million) in donations for his personal use.

Originally landing at Moscow‘s Vnukovo airport, the plane carrying the opponent was diverted at the last minute to the one in Sheremetyevo.

When he boarded alongside his wife Yulia, Alexei Navalny said he was โ€œvery happyโ€ to return and assured โ€œnothing to fear in Russiaโ€. โ€œI’m sure everything is going to be fine. Are we gonna arrest me? It is not possible, I am innocent,โ€ he said.

โ€œPrisoner of Conscienceโ€

At Vnukovo airport, most of his allies who came to welcome him were arrested by police, including Lyubov Sobol, a rising figure of the Russian opposition, before being released a few hours later.

According to the specialized NGO OVD-Info, a total of 65 people were arrested on Sunday in Moscow and St. Petersburg in connection with Mr. Navalny‘s return.

Amnesty International considered that Alexey Navalny’s arrest made him a โ€œprisoner of conscienceโ€ victim of a โ€œrelentless campaignโ€ by the Russian authorities to โ€œsilence himโ€.

The Russian opposition leader suddenly fell into a coma in August, as he returned from an election tour in Siberia. At first hospitalized in Omsk, he was eventually evacuated to a Berlin hospital under pressure from his relatives.

Three European laboratories have since concluded that the opponent had been poisoned by an innervating agent of the Novitchok type, developed in Soviet times for military purposes, a conclusion confirmed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) despite Moscow denial.

The opponent accuses the Russian Special Services (FSB) of attempting to assassinate him on the direct order of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian authorities have consistently refused to open an investigation. Moscow confirmed on Sunday that it had received documents about Mr. Navalny from Germany, but assured that they were โ€œessentially nothingโ€ of what Russia wanted.

While he is largely ignored by the national media, unrepresented in parliament and ineligible, Alexey Navalny remains the main voice of the Russian opposition, partly thanks to his 4.8 million subscribers YouTube channel and his organization, theanti-corruption (FBK), denouncing the corruption of the elites.

Despite searches, pressures and sentences to short detentions on a regular basis against Mr. Navalny or his allies, he has managed to organize several protests in recent years, and embarrassing setbacks to the power during local elections.

However, its notoriety remains limited outside the major cities, a survey by the independent Levada centre in September revealing that only 20% of Russians approved its actions.