Navalny ally vows to press for his freedom despite crackdown

MOSCOW (AP) — A top ally of Alexei Navalny vowed Tuesday to keep up the fight to free the jailed Russian opposition leader and his battle to influence this year’s parliamentary election despite a government crackdown on nationwide protests and its attempts to create a climate of fear.

U.S. officials said President Joe Biden raised concerns about Navalny’s arrest in his call Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the G7 foreign ministers also criticized the jailing of Navalny and the demonstrators demanding his release.

Lawyer and politician Lyubov Sobol told a news conference that Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his team’s regional offices will continue to operate even amid the “arrests of our followers and allies, open criminal probes (and) criminal probes that are yet to come.”

Sobol, herself under investigation on criminal charges of trespassing that she insists are bogus, said she is not afraid of being arrested and doesn’t plan to leave the country.

“It would be hard to say that I’m prepared for it, but silence, fear and indifference are more dangerous,” she told reporters.

Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic, was arrested and jailed earlier this month after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had spent nearly five months recovering from a poisoning with a deadly nerve agent that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny the accusations.

The politician faces a prison term, with authorities accusing him of violating the terms of a 2014 conviction for fraud, a prosecution that he says was politically motivated.

On Saturday, nearly 4,000 people were detained across Russia during nationwide protests that drew tens of thousands demanding Navalny’s release, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors political arrests.

Authorities launched 20 criminal investigations in different regions in the aftermath of the protests, mostly on the charges of violence against police, Russia’s Investigative Committee said.

Dozens of Navalny associates in various cities were detained before the protests, including Sobol, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh and longtime ally Georgy Alburov. Sobol was released within hours and ordered to pay a fine, while Yarmysh and Alburov were jailed for nine and 10 days each.

“Putin is trying to stop people from protesting and fighting for their rights through fear and criminal probes,” Sobol said. “We can only continue our work in these circumstances.”

The crackdown continued to bring international outrage. The top diplomats of the United States, Britain, Canada, France Germany, Italy and Japan, as well as the high representative of the European Union, condemned the “politically motivated arrest and detention” of Navalny and said they were “deeply concerned by the detention of thousands of peaceful protesters and journalists.”

The Kremlin had earlier dismissed Western criticism as interfering with Russia’s internal affairs.

Navalny’s team has called for more demonstrations on Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, when a court is scheduled to consider motions to convert his suspended sentence into a real prison term.

Even if he is sent to prison, his supporters won’t be deterred, Sobol said, citing the political goals of stopping the Kremlin’s party, United Russia, in the upcoming parliamentary balloting.

“There are lots of plans and tasks for the nearest future, (as well as) midterm and longterm (ones), and everyone understands what needs to be done both tomorrow, and a month from now, and half a year from now,” Sobol said. “One of the main goals is to ... destroy the monopoly of United Russia in the parliamentary election that will take place this September.”

Navalny has launched a campaign known as “Smart Voting” that is designed to promote candidates who are most likely to defeat those from the dominant ruling party.

In 2019, the project helped candidates backed by Navalny win 20 of 45 seats on the Moscow city council, and regional elections last year saw United Russia lose its majority in legislatures in three cities.

Analysts believe Navalny is capable of influencing the parliamentary vote, a key for the Kremlin as it will determine who controls the State Duma in 2024. That’s when Putin’s current term expires and he is expected to seek reelection, thanks to constitutional reforms last year.

On Thursday, a court is scheduled to hear an appeal on the ruling to jail Navalny. When asked about a possible outcome, Sobol said that “we do live in an unpredictable country; what will happen next and tomorrow is literally unknown.”

She cited an example of police officers unexpectedly showing up at her home 10 minutes before the news conference.

Almost proving her point, an official interrupted the event minutes later, trying to serve a subpoena to a Navalny ally who wasn’t there.

“I (didn’t do it) on purpose, they come on their own,” Sobol said with a chuckle.