Navalny supporters stage protests to mark Russian opposition leader’s 47th birthday

MOSCOW (AP) — Alexei Navalny expressed hope for a better future in Russia as his supporters staged pickets and protests to mark the jailed opposition leader’s 47th birthday on Sunday.

Navalny is serving a nine-year sentence for fraud and contempt of court, charges he says were fabricated to punish him for his work exposing official corruption and organizing anti-Kremlin protests.

He faces a new extremism trial that could keep him in jail for decades. Kremlin critics view the case as another attempt by the Russian government to isolate President Vladimir Putin’s most important enemy.

Navalny’s associates called for protests on Sunday to show their support for him in Russia and abroad.

Risking their own jail time, some Navalny supporters in Russia marked his birthday by holding individual pickets, while others painted graffiti. The police quickly arrested several of them for questioning.

Police increased their presence in downtown Moscow and rushed to round up those trying to organize individual pickets in Pushkin Square and elsewhere in the capital.

A man managed to throw leaflets before being taken away.

A woman holding a small black balloon with the words “Happy Birthday!” who wore a hoodie that read “You are not alone” was among the detainees. She asked the policemen why they were detaining her, but they did not answer.

Navalny supporters also showed up in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities, holding one-person pickets and leaving signs and graffiti supporting Navalny. Many have been detained.

Pro-Navalny demonstrations took place in several European cities.

Navalny said in a social media post by his allies that he would obviously prefer to spend his birthday with a family breakfast, kisses from his children and gifts, but “life is such that social progress and a better future can only be achieved if a number of people are willing to pay for the right to have beliefs.”

“The more such people there are, the smaller the price everyone has to pay,” he said. “And a day will certainly come when it will be routine and not at all dangerous to tell the truth and stand up for justice in Russia.”

Navalny was arrested in January 2021 upon returning to Moscow after recovering in Germany from nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin.

He was first sentenced to 2½ years in prison for violating parole. Last year he was sentenced to nine years for fraud and contempt of court. He is currently serving time in a maximum security prison 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of Moscow.

The extremism charges against Navalny, which could keep him in prison for 30 years, are linked to the activities of his anti-corruption foundation and statements by his top aides. His allies said the charges retroactively criminalize all activities of the Navalny Foundation since its inception in 2011.

The new charges come as Russian authorities carry out an intensified crackdown on dissent amid fighting in Ukraine, which Navalny has harshly criticized.

A Moscow court scheduled a preliminary hearing on Tuesday to discuss technical issues related to a retrial of Navalny, rejecting a request from his lawyers for more time to consider new, voluminous charges he dismissed as “absurd”.

Navalny also quoted an investigator telling him he would also face a separate trial in military court on terrorism charges that could carry a life sentence.

He said in a social media post on Sunday that he considered his prison sentence “just like an unpleasant part of my favorite job” and thanked his supporters.

“My plan for the previous year was not to get rough and sour and not lose the nonchalance of demeanor – that’s where the defeat begins,” he wrote. “And if I succeeded, it is only thanks to your support.”

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