MOSCOW -- A Moscow court on Saturday rejected Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s appeal of his prison sentence, even as the country faced an order from a top European rights court to free the Kremlin’s most prominent foe.
A few hours later, a judge in a separate case ordered Navalny to pay a fine for defaming a World War II veteran.
During the first court hearing, Navalny urged Russians to stand up to the Kremlin in a fiery speech mixing references to the Bible and “Harry Potter.”
Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption crusader and President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic, was arrested on Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.
Earlier this month, Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison for violating terms of his probation while convalescing in Germany. He appealed the sentence and asked to be released. A Moscow City Court judge instead reduced the prison sentence to just over 2 1/2 years, deducting a month-and-a-half that Navalny spent under house arrest in early 2015.
The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated and the European Сourt of Human Rights has ruled to be unlawful.
Navalny has been held in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison, but Russian news reports said that after losing his appeal, he would likely be sent to a prison in the western part of Russia within the next few days to serve out his sentence.
His arrest and imprisonment have fueled a huge wave of protests across Russia. Authorities responded with a sweeping crackdown, detaining about 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or given jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days.
In his speech at the hearing, Navalny referenced the Bible as well as “Harry Potter” and the animated sitcom “Rick and Morty” as he urged Russians to resist pressure from authorities and challenge the Kremlin to build a fairer and more prosperous country.
“The government’s task is to scare you and then persuade you that you are alone,” he said. “Our Voldemort in his palace also wants me to feel cut off,” he added, in a reference to Putin.
“To live is to risk it all,” he said, citing “Rick and Morty.” “Otherwise, you’re just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.”
Navalny also addressed the judge and the prosecutor, arguing that they could have a much better life in a new Russia.
“Just imagine how wonderful life would be without constant lying,” he said. “Imagine how great it would be to work as a judge ... when no one would be able to call you and give you directions what verdicts to issue.”
He insisted that he was unable to report to the authorities in line with his probation requirements while he was convalescing in Germany after his poisoning, emphasizing that he returned to Russia immediately after his health allowed.
“I wasn’t hiding,” he said. “The entire world knew where I was.”
Navalny said he was an atheist before but has come to believe in God, adding that his faith helped him face his challenges. He said he believed the Bible phrase that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, and that he felt no regret about deciding to return home to Russia.
“Even though our country is built on injustice and we all constantly face injustice ... we also see that millions of people, tens of millions of people, want righteousness,” Navalny told the court. “They want the righteousness and sooner or later they will have it.”
Asked about the impact of Navalny’s prison sentence on Russia’s politics, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the country’s “rich and multifaceted” political scene will develop regardless of the verdict.
Russia has rejected Western criticism of Navalny’s arrest and the crackdown on demonstrations as meddling in its internal affairs.
In a ruling Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Russian government to release Navalny, citing “the nature and extent of risk to the applicant’s life.” The Strasbourg-based court noted that Navalny has contested Russian authorities’ argument that they had taken sufficient measures to safeguard his life and well-being in custody following the nerve agent attack.
The Russian government has rebuffed the European court's demand, describing the ruling as unlawful and “inadmissible” meddling in Russia’s affairs. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the Russian Justice Ministry on Saturday sent a letter to the court asking it to revise its order.
In the past, Moscow has abided by European Court of Human Rights rulings awarding compensations to Russian citizens who have contested verdicts in Russian courts, but it never faced a demand by the European court to set a convict free.
In a sign of its long-held annoyance with the Strasbourg court’s verdicts, Russia last year adopted a constitutional amendment declaring the priority of national legislation over international law. Russian authorities might now use that provision to reject the ECHR’s ruling.
After losing his appeal, Navalny had a second court hearing on charges of slandering a World War II veteran and was ordered to pay a fine of 850,000 rubles (about $11,500). Prosecutors asked for a 950,000-rubles ($13,000) fine.
Navalny called the 94-year-old veteran and other people featured in a pro-Kremlin video last year as “corrupt stooges,” “people without conscience” and “traitors.” He rejected the slander charges, describing them as part of official efforts to disparage him.
Navalny said at the hearing that his accusers “will burn in hell.”