• Friday, Feb 26, 2021
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Russian police detain Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on arrival at airport

  • Published at 11:56 pm January 17th, 2021
Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia Navalnaya walk out of a plane after arriving at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, Russia on January 17, 2021 Reuters

His plane was diverted to another Moscow airport at the last minute in an apparent effort by authorities to thwart journalists and supporters greeting him

Russian police detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny at passport control after he flew home to Russia on Sunday, his lawyer, the prison service and Reuters witnesses said.

It was the first time Navalny has been back home since he was poisoned last summer. His plane was diverted to another Moscow airport at the last minute in an apparent effort by authorities to thwart journalists and supporters greeting him.

Navalny was detained when he showed his passport to border guards before formally entering Russia, Reuters witnesses said. His wife, Yulia, his spokeswoman and his lawyer were allowed to enter Russia.

It was not immediately clear why he had been detained.

But the Russian capital's prison service had said beforehand it would do everything to arrest him once he returned, accusing him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a 2014 case he says was trumped up.

Conundrum for Kremlin

His return posed a conundrum for the Kremlin: jail him and risk protests and punitive Western action by turning him into a political martyr. Or do nothing and risk looking weak in the eyes of Kremlin hardliners.

The opposition politician, who says he has nearly fully recovered, says Putin was behind his poisoning. The Kremlin denies involvement, says it has seen no evidence that he was poisoned, and that he is free to return to Russia.

Navalny says the Kremlin is afraid of him. The Kremlin, which only refers to him as the “Berlin patient,” laughs that off. Putin allies point to opinion polls that show the Russian leader is far more popular than Navalny, whom they call a blogger rather than a politician.

Police detain several at airport

Some of his supporters gathered at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport despite bitterly cold -20°C weather and over 4,500 new coronavirus cases a day in the Russian capital.

Riot police made several detentions at the airport and cleared a crowd of people waiting for Navalny to land, Reuters reporters saw.

There was a heavy police presence at the airport with dozens of police trucks.

Before Sunday, at least 2,000 people used used a Facebook page to say they plan to be there, with another 6,000 expressing an interest. Pro-Kremlin activists were also expected to turn up.

The Moscow prosecutor’s office, which says it has officially warned 15 pro-Navalny organisers, had said the event was illegal because it was not sanctioned by the authorities.

Citing Covid-19 restrictions, the airport had said it would not allow media inside.

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