An impromptu court hearing has ordered Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to spend 30 days in prison after he was arrested in Moscow.
The 44-year-old who is considered President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent foe later released a video urging Russians to take to the streets in protest at his treatment.
“Don’t be afraid, take to the streets. Don’t go out for me, go out for yourself and your future,” Mr Navalny said in the video posted on YouTube.
How his arrest unfolded
When he initially announced he would be flying back to his home in Russia, the capital’s prison service declared it would arrest him if he returned.
But the threat to his freedom failed to deter him from boarding a Moscow-bound flight from Germany, during which he laughed and joked with journalists about the prospect of police arresting him.
Mr Navalny, who believes Mr Putin was behind his poisoning in August, was even convinced the Kremlin was afraid of him.
What proceeded on Monday had Amnesty International believing Russian officials were on a mission to silence him.
Thousands of Mr Navalny’s supporters had been eagerly waiting to meet him at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, despite more than 4500 new coronavirus cases a day in the Russian capital.
The Moscow prosecutor’s office deemed the event illegal because it had not been sanctioned by authorities, meaning anyone who turned up could be detained, fined or jailed.
Still, many flocked to show their support.
But their hopes were dashed when the captain piloting Pobeda flight DP936 rerouted to Sheremetyevo airport minutes into its descent.
He told passengers there were “technical difficulties” and, sounding amused, said “we will calmly make our way to Sheremetyevo airport … where the weather is great”.
An energetic-looking Mr Navalny entered Terminal D. Accompanying him was his wife Yulia Navalnaya, his spokeswoman and his lawyer.
He told reporters this was his best day of the past five months and he had never considered not returning.
“This is my home,” he said. “I’m not afraid.”
Everything went downhill from there.
At border control, Mr Navalny was approached by an official who pulled him aside to “clarify the circumstances” of his arrival in Moscow.
Soon after, while standing in the narrow corridor of the passport control booth, Mr Navalny saw four police officers wearing black surgical-style masks making their way to him.
“Are you detaining me?” Mr Navalny asked. “You’re detaining me,” he said, repeatedly.
Mr Navalny embraced his wife before being escorted away by police.
Why Russia is after Navalny
The Russian capital’s prison service accused him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement.
In 2013, Mr Navalny was found guilty of stealing 16 million roubles ($281,000) worth of timber from a state firm in Russia’s remote Kirov region, while advising the region’s governor in 2009.
He was due to spend five years in jail until a Russian court gave him a suspended sentence due to fears that his incarceration would trigger a repeat of the mass protests he spearheaded against Mr Putin in 2011 and 2012.
Tens of thousands of people had flooded the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities to protest against government corruption.
To avoid a new wave of dissatisfaction in Russia, an appeals court allowed Mr Navalny to go free and instead jailed his younger brother Oleg.
As well as defrauding a timber firm, the pair were accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from cosmetics company Yves Rocher.
Following Mr Navalny’s arrest on Monday, Moscow’s FSIN prison service released a statement saying it had detained him for “multiple violations” of the 2014 suspended sentence for fraud.
Mr Navalny “will be held in custody” until a court ruling later in January, the statement read.
The hearing will decide if his suspended sentence should convert into a jail term.
The FSIN said it had previously warned Mr Navalny about the consequences of failing to meet probation conditions while in Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from what German tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent.
Mr Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20.
He was transferred to a Berlin hospital two days later and was still expected to meet the conditions of his suspended sentence, which included checking in with the FSIN prison service twice a month.
Russia refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Mr Navalny was poisoned.
Mr Navalny, who is hoping for success in Russia’s parliamentary elections in September, insists the 2014 fraud case against him and his brother was trumped up.
He faces potential trouble in three other criminal cases too, all of which he says are politically motivated.
US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Twitter: “Mr Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable.”
Amnesty International called his arrest “further evidence that Russian authorities are seeking to silence him”.
It said: “His detention only highlights the need to investigate his allegations that he was poisoned by state agents acting on orders from the highest.”