Russia to try Navalny for slander amid EU talks

A still image taken from a handout video footage made available by the press service of the Moscow City Court shows an opposition leader Alexei Navalny gesturing from inside a defendant's glass cage during a visiting session of the Simonovsky district court at the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, 2 February 2021. [Handout image/EPA/EFE]

Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is due back in court on Friday (5 February) for a slander trial despite Western calls for his release and on the same day as the European Union’s top diplomat is in Moscow for talks with Russia’s foreign minister.

Navalny, President Vladmir Putin’s most prominent critic, was jailed this week for almost three years for parole violations he called trumped up, a case that the West has condemned and which has spurred talk of sanctions.

Russian court jails Navalny, sparking street protests and Western outcry

A Moscow court on Tuesday (2 February) jailed the Kremlin’s most prominent critic Alexei Navalny for nearly three years, triggering fierce condemnation from the West and calls for his immediate release.

Russia has accused the West of hysteria and double standards and said the protests over his jailing, in which thousands were detained, were broken up by police because they were illegal.

Navalny is due in court at 0700 GMT on Friday on charges he slandered a World War Two veteran who took part in a promotional video backing last year’s reforms that let Putin run for two more terms in the Kremlin after 2024 if he wants.

Navalny described the people in the video as traitors without a conscience and as corrupt lackeys.

Though the charge is currently punishable by up to two years in jail, he cannot face a custodial sentence because the alleged crime was committed before the law was changed to make it a jailable offence, according to Navalny’s lawyer.

Navalny said last summer that the case was part of an unrelenting campaign to stifle his political campaign against the Kremlin.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, is set to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday.

Borrell justifies his 'controversial' visit to Moscow

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell admitted that his visit to Russia, scheduled for the end of the week, is seen with suspicion by some EU member states, but insisted that maintaining contacts with Moscow was the right strategy for the EU.

On the eve of the talks, the Kremlin said it wanted dialogue between Moscow and Brussels to be restored to discuss what it said were many disagreements.

On Thursday, EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano called the talks “a delicate diplomatic balancing act”.

The EU’s ties with Russia have been in the doldrums since Moscow seized Crimea in 2014 and fuelled a war in Ukraine that claimed more than 13,000 lives.

On Thursday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Brussels and Moscow should be able to freely discuss “all existing differences”.

Calls are growing in Europe for the EU to slap new sanctions on Moscow. An EU statement said foreign ministers would discuss “possible further action” at a meeting on 22 February.

US President Joe Biden’s top security adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, said the new administration would take action against Moscow in due course.

“We will do that at a time and a manner of our choosing,” he said.

Separately, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced concern over Navalny in a call with Lavrov, the State Department said.

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