Russian police detained top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny at a Moscow airport on Sunday just minutes after he returned home for the first time since his poisoning last summer.
Navalny was detained at passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport less than an hour after he flew in from Berlin in defiance of warnings that he faced imminent arrest.
His detention prompted immediate condemnation from the European Union and calls for EU sanctions against Russia by Lithuania.
“The detainment of Alexey Navalny upon arrival in Moscow is unacceptable. I call on Russian authorities to immediately release him,” European Council president Charles Michel wrote on Twitter.
EU member Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, meanwhile, said his detention was “totally unacceptable” and those involved should be targeted by sanctions.
Navalny’s plane landed at Sheremetyevo after a dramatic last-minute diversion from another Moscow airport, where several of his top allies were detained while waiting for him to arrive.
The arrest appeared to show that authorities would no longer tolerate the activities of the longtime anti-corruption campaigner and government critic, who in the last decade has become the most prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin.
Four uniformed police in black face masks met Navalny at passport control and led him away after a hug and kiss from his wife Yulia, AFP journalists at the scene said.
“Alexei was detained without the reason being explained,” Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mikhailova told AFP at the airport. “Everything that is happening now is against the law.”
But Russia’s FSIN prison service said it had detained Navalny for “multiple violations” of a 2014 suspended sentence for fraud, adding that “he will be held in custody” until a court ruling.
The FSIN had previously warned Navalny he would be arrested for failing to meet probation conditions while in Germany, including that he check in with the service twice a month.
The plane carrying Navalny from Germany, where the 44-year-old had been recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin, landed at Sheremetyevo around 8:15 pm (1715 GMT), AFP journalists on the flight said.
The pilot had told passengers there was a delay for “technical reasons” and then that the flight had been diverted from Vnukovo where Navalny’s supporters and media were waiting for his return.
Supporters had gathered at Vnukovo despite the airport banning mass events because of coronavirus restrictions. With his plane still in the air, police detained top Navalny aides including prominent Moscow activist Lyubov Sobol.
Footage shot by local journalists inside the airport showed police leading her and three others away while other supporters were seen being detained outside.
OVD Info, which monitors detentions at political protests in Russia, said at least 53 people had been detained at the airport.
There was a heavy security presence at Vnukovo, the AFP journalists there said, including dozens of police in riot gear with black helmets and batons.
– ‘Support his courage’ –
Some Navalny supporters had also answered a call from his team to show up, including Tanya Shchukina, an artist who had travelled from Saint Petersburg.
“It is important for me, as a Russian citizen, to support this man, his courage,” she told AFP. “After this assassination attempt… I had to come to support him, to show him that he is not alone, that everything will be okay.”
Navalny fell violently ill on a flight over Siberia in August and was flown out to Berlin in an induced coma.
Western experts concluded he was poisoned with Soviet-designed nerve toxin Novichok and Navalny alleges the attack was carried out on Putin’s orders.
The Kremlin denies any involvement and Russian investigators said there were no grounds to launch a probe into the attack.
The anti-graft campaigner may also face criminal charges under a probe launched late last year by Russian investigators who say he misappropriated over $4 million worth of donations.
– Anti-corruption investigations –
Navalny has been the symbol of Russia’s protest movement for a decade, after rising to prominence as an anti-corruption blogger and leading anti-government street rallies.
He publishes YouTube investigations into the wealth of Russia’s political elites. Some of the videos garner millions of views, making the activist’s team a target of lawsuits, police raids and jail stints.
Navalny is ignored or given negative coverage by state-controlled TV, the primary source of news for many Russians, which makes it unclear how much support he enjoys among ordinary citizens.
According to a poll published by the independent Levada Centre last year, only 20 percent of respondents said they approved of Navalny’s actions, while 50 percent disapproved.
The Kremlin opponent has never held elected office. He came second in a 2013 vote for mayor of Moscow but was barred from standing against Putin in the 2018 presidential elections.
His allies are also frequently prevented from running for election.
In 2019, several Navalny allies were barred from running for the Moscow city council, sparking mass rallies in the capital that lasted several weeks.
His team has been gearing up to challenge the ruling United Russia party in elections to the lower house State Duma due in September.