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Russia’s leading critic detained on return to Moscow after poisoning

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, Alexey Navalny, was detained by local police on Sunday, moments after his return to the country and five months after he was poisoned.

Russia's leading Kremlin critic, Alexey Navalny, was detained by local police on Sunday, moments after his return to the country and five months after he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.

Mr Navalny was taken away by police officers at the border without explanation, his spokesperson Kira Yarmysh tweeted.

His lawyer, who was also flying in from Berlin, was not allowed to accompany the opposition leader, she said.

READ MORE: Russian opposition leader released from German hospital after 32 days

Live footage from Russian broadcaster TV Rain showed Mr Navalny talking with dark-uniformed and masked officers at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, then kissing his wife Yulia before walking away with them.

The couple was returning from a five-month stay in Germany, where he had been recovering from the Novichok poisoning.

They landed at Sheremetyevo just after 8pm local time, according to flight data information.

"This is the best day in the past five months," Mr Navalny told journalists at the airport just before his arrest.

READ MORE: Poisoned Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny says he will fly home despite threats

"Everyone is asking me if I'm scared. I am not afraid," he said.

"I feel completely fine walking towards the border control.

"I know that I will leave and go home because I'm right and all the criminal cases against me are fabricated."

READ MORE: Navalny poisoning: Russian opposition leader says nerve agent was found 'in and on' his body

A perennial thorn in Russian President Vladimir Putin's side, Mr Navalny was placed on the country's federal wanted list during his convalescence abroad for violating terms of probation related to a years-old fraud case.

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Mr Navalany dismisses the case as politically motivated.

"Officers ... detained Alexey Navalny, who was sentenced to suspended punishment, and who has been on the wanted list since December 29, 2020 for repeated violations of the probationary period. Until the court ruling, he will be in custody, " said a statement from the Federal Penitentiary Service, according to TASS.

After Mr 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 Mr Navalny's team throughout a trip to Siberia in August, where Mr 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 Mr Navalny on more than 30 trips to and from Moscow since 2017.

Russia denies involvement in Mr Navalny's poisoning. But several Western officials and Mr Navalny himself have openly blamed Russia.

Flight diverted to Sheremetyevo

Mr Navalny had originally been scheduled to land at Vnukovo airport, where a crowd of hundreds of supporters and journalists waited. CNN has been unable to establish why the flight was diverted.

READ MORE: Russia: Germany has provided no proof of Navalny poisoning

Russian media broadcasts showed police arresting several allies waiting for him at Vnukovo, despite temperatures of around -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees F), including politician and lawyer Lyubov Sobol and Ruslan Shaveddinov, who works for Mr Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Navalny's 2.5-hour flight by Russian carrier Pobeda took off from Berlin Brandenburg Airport on Sunday afternoon.

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Before departing, he had thanked all the other passengers on his flight, according to a live feed from TV Rain. "Thanks to you all, I hope we will get there fine," he said. "And I'm sure everything will be absolutely great."

In an Instagram post on Saturday, Mr Navalny thanked Germany, adding that Germans were "nice, sympathetic, friendly people."

"Doctors and nurses. Physical therapists and police officers. A lot of cops. The neighbours who invited us to drink, and those who allowed us to rent. Politicians and lawyers. Shopkeepers. Journalists.

"The prosecutors who interrogated me on requests from Russia. Coaches. Teachers. And even, once, the Chancellor. I had quite a wide circle of friends here. And I can only say a huge thank you to everyone."

What's next for Navalny?

Mr Navalny is an outspoken critic of the government and has been detained by Russian authorities many times.

Alexei Navalny

In 2014, he was found guilty of fraud after he and his brother Oleg were accused of embezzling 30 million rubles ($540,000) from a Russian subsidiary of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher.

While Mr Navalny was given a suspended sentence, his brother was jailed. Mr Navalny maintains that the case is politically motivated.

FSIN has accused Mr Navalny of violating the terms of his suspended sentence by failing to show up for scheduled inspections, and requested that the court replace his suspended sentence with a real prison term.

A hearing has been scheduled for January 29. If the FSIN request is granted, Mr Navalny will likely be jailed for 3.5 years.

If Mr Navalny is not convicted later in January, he will still face an investigation for a newer fraud case, in which he and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have been accused of misusing donations from supporters.

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Mr Putin, who refuses to acknowledge Navalny as a legitimate opponent, has described the extensive media coverage and investigations into the poisoning as a fabrication by Western intelligence, and said in December that if Russian security services had wanted to kill Mr Navalny, they "would have finished" the job.

Alexei Navalny

"The situation with Navalny looks like two trains running towards each other at full speed, bound to collide," said Tatyana Stanovaya, a visiting fellow, also at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"There will be many victims."

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Attacks on Mr Navalny's allies have indeed continued.

Pavel Zelensky, a cameraman with Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, was arrested on Friday and will be detained until the end of February.

According to Agora, a Russian human rights organization, Mr Zelensky was accused of extremism for tweets from September, in which he blamed the government for journalist Irina Slavina's self-immolation.

Before taking her own life, Slavina blamed pressure from Russian law enforcement for her decision to self-immolate.

Source: 9News

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