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Alexei Navalny: EU and US demand release of poisoned Putin critic

The United States and several European governments have demanded the release of opposition politician Alexei Navalny from Russian detention.

Mr Navalny, 44, was detained by police soon after his flight from Germany landed in Moscow on Sunday.

He was returning to the country five months after he was almost killed in a nerve-agent attack he blamed on Russian authorities. Moscow denied any role.

Russia's foreign minister has dismissed the international condemnation.

Sergei Lavrov said Western politicians were using it as a way to "divert attention" from domestic problems.
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Alexei Navalny - The basics

Mr Navalny is an anti-corruption campaigner and the most prominent face of Russian opposition to President Vladimir Putin, whose party he says is full of "crooks and thieves"
He attempted to stand in the 2018 presidential race, but was barred because of an embezzlement conviction that he says was politically motivated
An outspoken blogger, he has millions of Russian followers on social media and managed to get some supporters elected to local councils in Siberia in 2020

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Russia's prison service on Sunday said the Kremlin critic had violated the terms of his suspended sentence for embezzlement. Officials said he would remain in custody until a court ruling.

Lawyers for Mr Navalny say they have not been granted access to him.
What has the international reaction been?

The US and European Union have led calls for Mr Navalny to be freed, but have stopped short of threatening any punitive action.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Russian authorities were trying to silence their critics. He called for Mr Navalny's "immediate and unconditional release".

"Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor commit violence against or wrongfully detain political opponents," Mr Pompeo said.

US President-elect Joe Biden's incoming national security adviser stuck a similar tone: "The Kremlin's attacks on Mr Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard," Jake Sullivan said.

Alexei Navalny: Russia's vociferous Putin critic
Two hours that saved Alexei Navalny's life

The response from the EU was equally strong, with France, Italy and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, among those issuing demands for his release.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described the arrest as "totally incomprehensible".

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Mr Navalny's arrest was "appalling" and called for his immediate release.

"Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny, Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil," he said.
What happened in the lead-up to the arrest?

When Mr Navalny was poisoned last August and collapsed on an internal flight in Siberia, he was flown to Germany for emergency medical treatment. As he recovered, he said he intended to return to Russia.

On Sunday, he made good on that pledge, boarding a Pobeda Airlines flight in Berlin despite warnings he would face arrest on landing.

The plane was packed with journalists, including Andrey Kozenko of the BBC Russian Service. Shortly before landing, the pilot announced that for "technical reasons", the plane was being diverted from Vnukovo airport, where thousands of Navalny supporters had gathered, to Sheremetyevo airport, causing a stir among the passengers.

"I know that I'm right. I fear nothing," Mr Navalny said upon landing, just minutes before he was detained. "Have you been waiting for me long?" he asked border guards.
Russian police detain a Navalny supporters at Moscow's Vnukovo airport. Photo: 17 January 2021image copyrightReuters
image captionA number of Navalny supporters were detained at Moscow's Vnukovo airport

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He kissed his wife Yulia - who had flown with him from Germany - after police officers warned they would use physical force if he disobeyed their orders to come with them. Despite pleas, Mr Navalny's lawyer was not allowed to accompany him.

The activist was later taken to a police station in Moscow, where he spent the night.

In a statement late on Sunday, Russia's prison service said the opposition leader "had been wanted since 29 December 2020 for repeated violations of the probation period". It added that he would remain in custody until a court decision.

The authorities accuse him of violating conditions imposed after a conviction for embezzlement, for which he received a suspended sentence. He has always said the case was politically motivated.

Separately, Russian prosecutors have launched a new criminal case against Mr Navalny on fraud charges related to transfers of money to various charities, including his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

The activist accuses Mr Putin of targeting him with spurious cases.
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Analysis box by Steve Rosenberg, Moscow correspondent

The Russian authorities often make out that Alexei Navalny isn't popular with the Russian people, that he's no threat to President Putin.

But his return home five months after being poisoned sparked a major police operation on Sunday.

In chaotic scenes, riot police pushed Mr Navalny's supporters out of the arrivals hall of Vnukovo airport, before the flight was rerouted.

Last summer, Russia's most prominent opposition figure was attacked in Siberia allegedly by an undercover hit squad of Russian security agents.

His decision to return home is a direct challenge to Vladimir Putin - and creates a dilemma for the Kremlin.

It risks turning him into a political martyr, a Nelson Mandela-like figure, and sparking more Western sanctions.

Do nothing and the Kremlin's fiercest critic will almost certainly be a thorn in its side in an important election year.
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What happened to Navalny last year?

In August, he collapsed on a plane flying from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow. The pilot diverted the flight to the city of Omsk, where Mr Navalny was admitted to hospital. Two days later, Russian officials allowed him to be airlifted to Germany in an induced coma.

European experts later said he had been poisoned with the extremely toxic chemical weapon Novichok, developed by Soviet scientists in the Cold War.

He was released from a hospital in Berlin in September to continue his recuperation.

Report names 'Russian agents' in Navalny poisoning

Last month, investigative reporters named three agents of Russia's FSB security service who had travelled to Tomsk at the time Mr Navalny was there, and said the specialist unit had tailed him for years.

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