Russian court extends Alexei Navalny’s prison sentence amid crackdown on critics

For years Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his organization have been the target of a Kremlin campaign of harassment, jailing and even poisoning. And on Tuesday he received a new verdict in prison, where he is already serving a two-year term, standing next to his lawyers. Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Separately today, a Russian court sentence Alexei Navalny, who is Russia's most prominent opposition figure, to nine years in a maximum security prison, after finding him guilty of embezzling supporters' donations.

    It's a charge the State Department today labeled spurious and outlandish. It is Moscow's latest move to crack down on critics.

    For more, here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For years, Alexei Navalny and his organization have exposed what they call Vladimir Putin's stolen billions, including just yesterday a video investigation alleging Putin owns this $700 million yacht.

    Navalny been the target of a long-running Kremlin campaign of harassment, jailing, and even poisoning. And, today, he received the verdict in prison, where he is already serving a 2.5-year term, standing next to his lawyers.

    In a new tactic, those lawyers were detained by police after the verdict was handed down.

    Earlier, we spoke to Kira Yarmysh, Navalny's spokeswoman.

  • Kira Yarmysh, Spokeswoman For Alexei Navalny:

    All his case was fabricated.

    And we were able to see it during the whole trial. So, this case actually was a huge shame for Russian legal system. But, I mean, everyone understands probably that Russian legal system is in ruins. Alexei is facing three more criminal cases right now.So there will be three more trials. So his total term in prison can be prolonged for whatever Putin would like it to be prolonged.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After being sentenced, Navalny's Twitter page cited a quotation from the HBO series "The Wire": "You only do two days. That's the day you go in, and the day you come out."

    To discuss this, I'm joined by Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the center for European Policy Analysis and an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

    Alina Polyakova, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    What is your response to this new sentence against Navalny?

    Alina Polyakova, Director, Center for European Policy Analysis: Well, unfortunately, this was all but predictable. This was a sham trial, under sham, politically motivated charges.

    Obviously, Putin's desire is to keep Alexei Navalny behind bars for as long as possible, and that was really the purpose of this public theater, if you want to call it that. It was certainly not a trial.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Navalny's spokeswoman told us that their organization is actually thriving. But can it really survive being labeled extremist by Russian authorities?

  • Alina Polyakova:

    Well, of course, over the course of the last several weeks, we have seen a pretty aggressive crackdown on Russian civil society, Russian journalists, independent media, et cetera.

    The Russian law now stipulates that anyone who says anything disparaging against the Russian military or who uses the term war to describe what Russia is in fact doing in Ukraine could face up to 15 years in jail.

    So, Alexei Navalny's Anti-Corruption fund, his organization, was really the first victim of what has become an authoritarian regime of oppression. And what that has meant, the extremist label you mentioned, has basically meant anyone who was associated with Alexei Navalny, associated with his organization has become persona non grata for the long term in Russia.

    So, de facto, the entire operation, which was spanning across Russia, has been completely disseminated at this time. And I hope there are still individuals involved with it, and I hope that it continues to work in some ways. But, certainly, that has become incredibly difficult in Russia, if not completely impossible.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, and we have certainly seen members of his organization have to leave Russia.

    That crackdown you were just talking about, the U.S. says that 15,000 people have been detained since the invasion of Ukraine. And all independent media has been blocked, in addition to all of the rules about the words that people inside Russia are allowed and not to use about the war in Ukraine.

    Just talk again about how little freedom of speech there exists today in Russia.

  • Alina Polyakova:

    Well, very, very unfortunately for, I think, first and foremost, the Russian people, there is a new Iron Curtain that has descended over Russia as a result of what we now see as a dictatorial regime under President Putin.

    We now have a situation where most Western social media has been banned or labeled extremist, as Meta, or Facebook, was just recently. The others that are still operating in Russia, I really, think it's just inevitable, in a matter of days, before they're shut down.

    And we have seen completely, frankly, absurd footage of people going in the street with blank pieces of paper and being arrested just for holding a white sheet of paper up. This is how extreme, brutal and repressive the situation is.

    So, of course, the costs of saying anything against the government, of going on the streets are so extremely high in Russia today that very few people are willing to take the risk. And I think it's important to note that a lot of these new rules are really targeting the young Russians, because, if you are arrested in one of these demonstrations or holding up a white sheet of paper, that can really affect your life chances for the long term.

    You may not be able to attend university. You may be fired from your job. So the consequences and the costs are so high that, de facto, Russia is nearing something like North Korea at this point when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. De facto, that no longer exists in Russia today in a real, substantive way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we have certainly seen a lot of young people leave Russia.

    The U.S. response to Russia to be able to punish Moscow, the Kremlin has, of course, been a series of sanctions and export controls between the U.S. and its allies. Do you believe that those sanctions, those export controls in any way threaten Putin's hold on power?

  • Alina Polyakova:

    Well, it is early to say.

    I mean, these sanctions have all been implemented over the last several weeks, since Putin made the decision to launch a war against Ukraine. Certainly, they are already having an immediate effect. We're seeing that in terms of food shortages inside of Russia, the crash of the ruble, the Russian Stock Exchange not opening, opening in a very limited way, for fears of a complete collapse.

    But sanctions have a way of taking a long time to work. And, so far, we haven't seen any dissent among the elite, the so-called oligarchs that are close to Putin. We have seen many of their yachts being confiscated, of course, and other properties and assets being frozen.

    But, as far as we can tell, that hasn't led to some sort of at least public disagreement or some sort of palace coup against the regime. Right now, it seems that the elite is standing by Putin, because he holds a huge amount of leverage over these individuals. Their entire wealth depends on him and his favor.

    And that has been the reality for a very long time. So it's very hard to see how or if that will change in the longer term.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Alina Polyakova, thank you very much.

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