Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was coming home. He was flying back to Russia from Germany where he had been treated for a poisoning he suffered at the hands of Russia’s intelligence service.
Authorities had ordered him to come back to Moscow by December 29, but Navalny was still recovering from his brush with death and refused to show up.
He was promptly arrested after arriving at a Moscow airport. Navalny was on probation for a bogus theft charge.
According to the prison service, Navalny was in violation of the terms of a suspended prison sentence he is serving over a 2014 conviction and of evading the supervision of Russia’s criminal inspection authority. Navalny, 44, is currently serving out a suspended 3.5-year prison term over a theft case he claims was politically motivated. His probation period expired on Dec. 30.
Navalny revealed he would be returning to Russia last Wednesday and Moscow’s prison service said they would arrest him upon his return, according to Reuters.
Authorities tried to prevent any demonstration of support at the airport.
In an alleged effort by authorities to prevent supporters from greeting him, the flight was diverted to a separate Moscow airport at the last minute. Originally meant to land at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, the flight landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
Sunday’s flight was Navalny’s first trip back to Russia since he was poisoned last summer. After initially being held by doctors in Russia, he was released to Germany, where investigators determined he was poisoned with a Novichok-class nerve agent, a potent toxin produced in Russia since the time of the Soviet Union. Navalny recovered in Germany up until his return on Sunday.
Like all critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Navalny has been under threat since he came to prominence as an anti-corruption crusader. It made figuring out who his attempted murderers were that much harder. He had angered not only the government but his exposés of Putin cronies’ corruption had enraged several of them.
But later investigations determined who was responsible.
After Navalny’s poisoning with military-grade Novichok in August, a joint investigation by CNN and the group Bellingcat implicated the Russian Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning, piecing together how an elite unit at the agency followed Navalny’s team throughout a trip to Siberia in August, where Navalny was poisoned and fell ill on a flight to Moscow.
The investigation also found that this unit, which included chemical weapons experts, had followed Navalny on more than 30 trips to and from Moscow since 2017. Russia denies involvement in Navalny’s poisoning. But several Western officials and Navalny himself have openly blamed Russia.
The arrest isn’t likely to deter Navalny, despite the possibility he could go back to prison. There are others in Russia who have taken up his anti-corruption cause, whether he is in or out of prison. Or alive or dead.