After Wagner mutiny, Navalny asks why he, not Prigozhin, is jailed

RIGA, Latvia — Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is being tried on “extremism” charges in a case that could add decades to his sentence, sat in a courtroom following the Wagner mercenary rebellion over the weekend. He stared, thunderstruck, as his lawyers showed him images of the crisis.

Accused of trying to overthrow Russian authorities himself, Navalny was stunned to learn that Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who sent columns of tanks rolling toward Moscow and whose fighters shot down six Russian helicopters and a plane, had escaped insurrection charges, thanks to a deal with President Vladimir Putin.

As the rebels sped toward Moscow on Saturday and Prigozhin released audio messages declaring that he and his men were “ready to die” and would shoot any forces resisting them, Navalny was in a grim prison colony with no access to the news, he said, either on radio, television or from other inmates.

“I can’t see other people, and when I do I’m not allowed to talk to them,” Navalny wrote in a thread that his team posted on Twitter.

So he had no idea that Putin was grappling with his greatest crisis since he took power in 1999 — the kind of upheaval that Navalny had long predicted was the only way a change would occur in Russia’s government.

When his lawyers told him about the crisis in court Monday, he wrote: “I thought it was some kind of new joke or internet meme that hadn’t reached me yet.”

“Instead the prosecutor came in and we continued the trial in which I stand accused of forming an organization to overthrow President Putin by violent means,” he wrote.

Navalny, already serving more than 11 years in prison, faces a lengthy term in the new trial, in which he is charged with setting up an extremist organization — his Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) — which for years has exposed the corruption that riddles the Russian state.

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He also faces other charges in the trial, which is being held in secret, including “rehabilitating Nazi ideology.”

“While listening to these accusations, I looked at the photo of a roadblock with a grenade launcher in Moscow’s Yasenevo district,” Navalny wrote, referring to sandbag barriers that were hastily built Saturday on the outskirts of the capital.

“While listening to how the ACF are extremists who are dangerous for the country, I read about how one group of Russian troops ‘took positions on the Oka River’ to defend themselves against another group of Russian troops.”

In 2021, Russia banned the ACF and Navalny’s political network as “extremist,” setting the stage for the new trial.

One of the foundation’s most notable investigations, “Putin’s Palace,” drew 127 million views, alleging corruption by the president. The Kremlin denied the report.

It was released in 2021, two days after Navalny was arrested upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he had recovered from being poisoned with a banned chemical nerve agent. The State Department said the attack was carried out by the Russian state. The Kremlin denied that as well.

In Putin’s weekend deal with Prigozhin, he agreed to drop insurgency charges against the Wagner leader if he moved to Belarus and took along any Wagner fighters who did not want to either sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry or go home.

On Tuesday, Putin admitted for the first time that Wagner was “fully state-funded,” after years of keeping the mercenary group, which is technically illegal in Russia, at arm’s length. Putin said Prigozhin and Wagner were paid about $2 billion a year.

As Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on, Putin has cracked down mercilessly on critics of his government and opponents of the war.

Another prominent opposition leader, and a Washington Post contributor, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was convicted of treason in a closed trial in April and sentenced to 25 years in prison for opposing the war and speaking about Russian massacres of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha. Other opposition figures have received terms of more than seven years.

In the wake of the mutiny, the crackdown on critical voices appeared to be intensifying. On Wednesday, Russia’s Prosecutor General declared the independent Riga-based Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe an “undesirable organization,” making it a crime for any Russian in the country or abroad to work for or cooperate with it.

Prosecutors said the newspaper, whose editor in chief shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, “threatens the foundations of the constitutional order and the security of the state” — citing its reporting on war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, as well as articles quoting Navalny and his organizations.

Navalny blamed Putin for the Wagner crisis, saying he had allowed the mercenary group to flourish: “It is dictators and usurpation of power that lead to mess, weak government and chaos,” he wrote.

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It was not the Russian opposition, the ACF or the West that shot down helicopters and brought the nation to the brink of civil war, Navalny pointed out, adding that Prigozhin also threatened Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“It was Putin personally who did this, I remind you that he personally pardoned all those convicts who were on their way to assassinate Shoigu and whoever else they wanted to kill,” Navalny wrote, referring to Wagner’s recruitment of prisoners, who were pardoned by Putin if they survived six months of fighting.

“The fact that Putin’s war could ruin and disintegrate Russia is no longer a dramatic exclamation,” he wrote. “It is not democracy, human rights and parliamentarism that make the regime weak and lead to turmoil.”

Navalny has been placed in punishment cells 15 times for minor offenses, such as undoing the top button of his prison uniform or washing his hands at the wrong time. As his health deteriorated and he lost weight, his team expressed fears that authorities were trying to break him or kill him.

He has been denied access even to pen and paper by the Russian Supreme Court.

“I’m not asking for extra food; I’m not asking for a Christmas tree to be put in my cell,” Navalny told the court in an appeal rejected last week, according to the Russian independent news outlet Mediazona. “We’re talking about the basic human right to have a pen in the cell and a sheet of paper to write a letter to the court.”

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