Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny spent five months in Germany recuperating from a near-fatal poisoning. On Sunday, he returned to Russia and, as expected, was swiftly arrested. Police detained Navalny, one of the most outspoken critics of the Kremlin, shortly after his flight from Berlin landed. Hundreds of supporters and lots of media outlets had gathered at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport to greet Navalny, who has accused the Kremlin of trying to kill him. Authorities ended up closing that airport and diverted the plane to another airport. Footage from the scene showed police officers waiting for Navalny at passport control. He kissed his wife before he was led off.
Russia’s prisons service said Navalny had been detained for his failure to appear at a parole hearing from a suspended sentence on a 2014 conviction. He will be detained pending a court hearing but none has been scheduled. “I am not afraid,” Navalny said shortly before he was detained. “I know that I am right. I know all the criminal cases against me are fabricated.” His spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said the last minute change of airports showed how the Kremlin didn’t like the scene of supporters waiting to greet Navalny. “Until recently, it was impossible to believe they [the authorities] were so scared. But here’s the confirmation,” she tweeted. She also said Navalny’s lawyer was not allowed to go with him.
International observers were watching Navalny’s return. “This is a real act of bravery for Alexei Navalny to return to Russia, given that government agents already tried to kill him once,” Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth tweeted. “But he understandably wants to be part of the pro-democracy movement in Russia, not a dissident in exile.” Jake Sullivan, who President-elect Joe Biden has selected as his national security adviser, called for Navalny to be “immediately released.”