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Navalny's Return: Three Years of Imprisonment After Poisoning

Three years ago, on January 17, 2021, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Russia after recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning in Germany. His return was met with immediate arrest at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, marking the beginning of a tumultuous journey that has seen Navalny imprisoned ever since. As we reflect on this somber anniversary, it is essential to revisit the events that unfolded and examine the impact on Russia's political landscape.

Navalny, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, fell critically ill on August 20, 2020, during a flight from Siberia to Moscow. He was eventually evacuated to Germany, where tests confirmed poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent. The Kremlin denied any involvement, but independent international investigations unequivocally pointed towards state-sponsored assassination.

Upon his recovery in Germany, Navalny bravely decided to return to Russia despite the risks. He asserted that his mission was to continue the fight against corruption and injustice, and he knew the potential consequences of his return. As he stepped off the plane in Moscow, he was promptly detained by Russian authorities, setting the stage for a legal battle that would extend for years.

In the subsequent months, Navalny faced trial on charges of violating probation from a previous conviction, a case widely regarded as politically motivated. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that Navalny's 2014 conviction was arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable, but the Russian authorities remained unfazed. The court upheld the prison sentence, and Navalny found himself behind bars. In 2021, the European Parliament awarded Navalny the Sakharov Prize, the European Union's top human rights honour.

In March 2022, a court sentenced Alexei Navalny to nine years of imprisonment in a high-security penal colony on charges of large-scale fraud and contempt of court. Less than a year later, he received an additional 19-year sentence in a maximum-security prison on charges of creating an extremist organisation, financing extremist activities, and making extremist appeals online. During his time in prison, he was denied his basic rights and access to doctors and subjected to transfers from prison to prison, eventually ending up in an extremely remote facility about 60 km north of the Arctic Circle. Additionally, Navalny has been sent to solitary confinement (shizo) over 20 times for absurd and fabricated violations. In total, he has spent 273 days in solitary confinement.

From his prison cell, Navalny has continued to speak out against Putin's regime, using his voice to expose corruption and advocate for democratic reforms. Yesterday, on the third anniversary of his return, Navalny has released a powerful statement, shedding light on his experiences and maintaining his commitment to the fight for a free and democratic Russia:

Exactly three years ago, I returned to Russia after undergoing treatment for poisoning. I was arrested at the airport, and for three years now, I have been behind bars. And for three years, I have been answering the same question. Inmates ask it straightforwardly and bluntly. Prison administration staff do it cautiously, with recorders turned off.

"Why did you come back?"

Answering this question, I already feel a mild annoyance of two kinds. The first one – towards myself for not being able to find words that would make everyone understand and stop asking. The second one – towards the Russian politics of the past decades, which has so deeply ingrained cynicism and conspiracy theories in society that people fundamentally don't believe in simple motives. Like, if you returned, it means you made a deal with someone. It just didn't work out. Or hasn't worked out yet. There's some cunning plan involving the Kremlin towers. In any case, there's a SECRET underlying motive. After all, everything in politics is not as it seems.

But there aren’t any secrets or schemes. It’s really that simple. I have my country and my convictions. And I don’t want to give up on either. I can’t betray either one. If your convictions mean anything, you must be ready to stand up for them. And, if necessary, make sacrifices [for them]. If you’re not ready [to do that], then you have no convictions. You just think you do. But those aren’t convictions or principles; they’re just thoughts in your head.

Of course, this doesn't mean that everyone who is not currently in prison doesn't have convictions. Everyone pays their price. For many, it is quite high even without imprisonment. I participated in elections and aimed for leadership positions. The demand for a different role came from others. I traveled across the country and proclaimed from the stage everywhere: "I promise that I won't let you down, I won't deceive you, and I won't abandon you." Returning, I fulfilled my promise to the voters. There must, after all, emerge in Russia those who don't lie to their people.

It so happens that in today’s Russia, I have to pay for my right to have and to openly express my convictions by sitting in solitary confinement. And, of course, I don’t like being in prison. But I won’t renounce my convictions or my homeland. My convictions aren’t exotic, sectarian, or radical. On the contrary, everything I believe in is based on science and historical experience. Those in power must change. The best way to elect leaders is through honest and free elections. Everyone needs a fair court. Corruption destroys the state. There should be no censorship. The future lies with these principles.

And currently, those in power are sectarians and marginal figures. In general, they have no ideas. Only the goal – to hold onto their seats. And perfected hypocrisy allows them to transform into any guise. The polygamists have become conservatives in our country. The members of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) are now Orthodox. The owners of 'golden passports' and offshore accounts are now aggressive patriots.

Lies, lies, and nothing but lies. It will collapse and crumble. Putin's state is not viable. One day we will look at his place and he won't be there. Victory is inevitable.

But for now, we must not give up and hold onto our convictions.

As we mark this solemn anniversary, the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny remains a stark symbol of the challenges faced by those who dare to challenge the status quo in Russia. The global community must not forget his sacrifice and should continue to advocate for his release and the broader cause of democracy and human rights. The struggle for justice and freedom in Russia is far from over, and Navalny's resilience serves as a poignant reminder that the fight continues, even from behind prison walls.

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