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A Russian court on Friday sentenced opposition leader and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to an additional 19 years in a maximum-security prison, finding him guilty on extremism charges in what critics have lambasted as a “sham trial.”

Navalny, who is already serving a nine-year prison term in a maximum-security facility in Melekhovo, 250 kilometers east of Moscow, now faces decades behind bars.

Prosecutors had requested a 20-year sentence for Navalny, who said on social media on Thursday before the verdict that he expected to receive a lengthy “Stalinist” sentence.

“When the figure is announced, please show solidarity with me and other political prisoners by thinking for a minute why such an exemplary huge term is necessary,” he wrote. “Its main purpose is to intimidate. You, not me.”

Although he has visibly lost weight, Navalny cut a relaxed figure, chatting to co-defendant Daniel Kholodny ahead of the hearing and appearing to crack jokes with the defense team while the verdict was being read out. 

Prosecutors had also asked for Navalny to be transferred to a “special regime” penal colony, likely more isolated and with restricted access, a request that was granted by the court.

“Today’s decision [about a move to a special regime prison] formalizes that which is already being done today,” Olga Romanova from the prison rights NGO Russia Behind Bars told morning radio show RZVRT.

Yevgeny Smirnov from Pervy Otdel, a law firm specialized in espionage and treason cases, said sending Navalny to a “special regime” colony is “a way of increasing pressure on him even more.” 

“Such prisons are reserved for those who instead of a death sentence have been restricted in their freedom for life, and especially dangerous repeat offenders,” Smirnov said. “Political prisoners rarely fall in that category. In fact, in my memory, Navalny is the first.”

He said that in the worst case, Navalny would be kept alone in a cell and only be allowed a single long visit and a single parcel a year.

Experts on Russia’s prison system have also expressed concern about Navalny’s safety from fellow inmates if he were to be transferred to such a prison.

Harsh crackdown

A longtime critic and the main political opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Navalny, 47, was arrested on his arrival back to Russia in January 2021 after being treated in Germany following a suspected Kremlin-sanctioned poisoning. At the time, the Kremlin denied Putin had ordered Navalny’s poisoning, and said there was no reason to open a criminal investigation, a decision that was later condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.

Navalny was arrested on his arrival back to Russia in January 2021 after being treated in Germany following a suspected Kremlin-sanctioned poisoning | Kirill Kurdryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

After returning to Russia, Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months for violating the terms of probation from an earlier sentence. In March 2022, he was given another nine-year sentence on fraud charges.

The extremism charges are not the end. Navalny is also facing an additional trial on terrorism charges in connection with an April bombing in St. Petersburg which killed pro-war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky, according to AP. Navalny, who was behind bars at the time of the attack, said he could face an additional 10 years for that charge.

Members of Navalny’s team have said he has faced harassment in jail, being denied food and access to medical care. Navalny has accused the prison authorities of using various pretexts to place and keep him in solitary confinement, in violation of Russian law.

After his imprisonment, a Russian court labeled Navalny’s movement as “extremist,” which led to his network of campaign offices being shut down. With the government cracking down on his supporters, many have fled, gone underground or been locked up.

However, some allies of the opposition leader continued showing their support, organizing demonstrations inside and outside Russia. On Friday, outside the prison gates, several dozen people, many of them young, waited in the afternoon sun in an expression of their support for Navalny, under the watchful eye of prison guards and police, some of whom asked passers-by for their documents. 

European Council President Charles Michel called Friday’s verdict in “yet another sham trial” against Navalny “unacceptable.”

“This arbitrary conviction is the response to his courage to speak critically against the Kremlin’s regime,” Michel said. “I reiterate the EU’s call for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Navalny.”

Showing support

A handful of people gathered in front of the penal colony in Melekhovo ahead of Friday’s verdict, braving long journeys in sweltering summer heat to express their support. Many of those who spoke to POLITICO had traveled for hours to the penal colony in Melekhovo in a show of support for Navalny, despite having no illusion about the outcome of the case.

“In Russia, people get these kind of sentences simply for saying the truth,” said Alexander, a lanky 18-year-old economics student with green eyes who had traveled for several hours by train and car from Yaroslavl. “I believe that there should be no place for such lawlessness in the modern world.”  

Refused access onto the prison grounds, he had spent hours waiting in the burning sun together with other supporters, while police guards approached them one by one and jotted down their personal details. 

“I know they’ll be on my doorstep soon,” said Alexander. “But I’m not ashamed of my views.”

Two female supporters stood outside the prison gates, two hours before the sentencing was scheduled to take place.

Elena, 60, said she had traveled overnight from St. Petersburg to attend the hearing. 

“It’s for my own conscience,” she told POLITICO. “And for Navalny to see that he has support.”

She was carrying a bag with water, tea and an umbrella in case the weather turned.

Another woman, also called Elena, 53, with her brown hair tied into a pigtail, had gotten up at 4 a.m. to make the journey from Moscow.

“Many of those who support Navalny have fled to avoid being mobilized,” she said. “We are women of a certain age and don’t run that risk.” 

Roman, a fashionable 18-year-old dressed in a Yankees cap, sunglasses and a Japanese anime shirt, traveled three hours by train and three hours by car from Shakovskaya, a town in the Moscow region with his 16-year-old girlfriend.

“This way we show others that they are not alone in their opposition to Putin, to the war. Maybe it’ll inspire others too,” he said.

Asked whether he thought his presence outside the penal colony could have repercussions, he said: “Sooner or later it undoubtedly will. But it’s not worth being scared. I’ve already understood that there won’t be a good end to all of this either way.”