Russian Supreme Court Overturns Navalny’s Sentence, Enabling Him to Run for President, But Case Not Closed

November 17, 2016
Alexey Navalny (2nd from left) with his lawyer, Olga Mikhailova (3rd from left) after his sentence was overturned by the Russian Supreme Court on November 16, 2016. Photo by Vera Chelishcheva

LIVE UPDATES: The Russian Supreme Court has overturned the sentence of opposition anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, enabling him to run for president in the 2018 elections. But the case has not been closed, only sent for further investigation — which might lead to a new sentence.

The previous issue is here.

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Russian Parliament Passes Draft Law in First Reading Enabling Military Conscripts to Serve in Combat Abroad

The Russian State Duma or lower house of parliament passed in the first reading today a draft law enabling military conscripts to sign one-year contracts to take part in combat, RosBalt reported.
If passed, the law will pave the way for draftees to be sent into combat in Syria, Ukraine and other areas of conflict.

For a bill to become a law in Russia, it must be passed in three readings by the State Duma, then passed to the upper house of parliament (the Federation Council), which has 14 days to approve or reject it. Then the text is sent to be signed into law by the president. This law is likely to pass, and brings Russia one step closer to separate effort, to legalize mercenaries.

The draft law currently says the contracts are to be limited to one year for conscripts and to be used:

“in a period of extreme circumstances or in operations to support or restore peace and security or to intercept international terrorist activist beyond the bounds of Russian territory and also on ships at sea.”

The draft law also specifies that a conscript soldier must voluntarily decide to sign a contract to go into combat abroad; while military conscription is obligatory in Russia, serving abroad will remain a choice:

“A contract may be concluded on performing military service for a period of up to one year, no earlier than one month before the expiration of the term of military service, with a serviceman who has bee passed through military service under the draft and who has expressed a wish to perform military service by contract…”

In the Russian context, it’s not clear how “voluntary” this service will be. The independent media in Russia and Ukraine as well as families of soldiers have reported that some are pressured as they near the end of their drafted term to sign on as kontraktniki and go into combat in Ukraine. Then, as in the case of the two soldiers of the GRU (Russian military intelligence) captured in Ukraine last year, the Russian military disavowed them, pressuring their wives to claim they were not contract soldiers but simply volunteers for the separatist cause.

Under current Russian military regulations, conscript soldiers are not sent to battle zones abroad. The new law would enable such draftees, one month before the end of their required service, to sign short-term contracts to go to Ukraine — where the government has denied they are present — to Syria — where the military says they only provide artillery support, guard buildings or humanitarian aid convoys, or any other combat zone. Soldiers in reserve will also be able to sign such contracts for the duration of the conflict.

With this new measure by the Duma, it’s important to distinguish between contract soldiers and mercenaries; this law enables lawful draftees formally brought into the armed forces to sign contracts to take part in combat abroad but it does not legalize private military contractors.

Russian independent media has been reporting for some years now about the existence of mercenaries taking part in Russia’s wars abroad. The St. Petersburg online daily Fontanka has reported since 2013 on Wagner, a private military contractor born from another failed PMC – known as the Slavonic Corps, which has sent dozens of fighters to Syria, and some have been killed in action.

Such PMCs are barred by Russian law, but a concerted lobby has been trying to get them legalized. Last year the Just Russia party in the State Duma introduced a draft law on private military and security organizations but it failed to get sufficient support from other factions. More importantly, the Kremlin failed to endorse it, invoking existing bans on armed formations outside the state — the kind of entities it fights in the North Caucasus in the form of Islamist fighters, many of whom have sworn allegiance to ISIS.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick and Pierre Vaux 

Russian Supreme Court Overturns Navalny’s Sentence, Enabling Him to Run for President, But Case Not Closed
The Russian Supreme Court has overturned the sentence of opposition anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny in the 2013 Kirovoles case, in which the Russian government claimed Navalny and a business partner, Pyotr Ofitserov had embezzled cash from a lumber deal, RBC reported.

Navalny had been sentenced to 5 years in a labor colony and Ofitserov was given 4, and both sentences were converted to conditional terms; now the sentences are overturned, but the case was sent back for further investigation.

The Russian Supreme Court ruling followed the decision of the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) in February 2016 in favor of Navalny and Ofitservo, saying that they had been denied a fair trial, and should receive 8,000 euros in compensation. In addition, Navalny was to be compensated 48,000 euros in legal expenses, and Ofitserov 23,000 euros. 
Moscow City Court has also suspended its efforts to collect 16 million rubles (about $237,000) from Navalny as payment for the damages in the case.

Navalny celebrated the ruling in a post on his blog, saying:

“On the very first day of the trial, I said everything would be overturned; after all the entire case is a falsification and a fabrication from the first to the last word.”

It took Navalny and his lawyers and supporters over three years to get this ruling from a Russian court — in the face of the prosecutor’s request, reiterated at the November 16 session, to leave the sentence in force.

The ruling frees Navalny to run in the 2018 presidential elections (which some believe will be moved up to 2017):

“Today I am no longer convicted under serious criminal code articles, I have the right to take part in elections and must only sign one paper during visits by the criminal justice inspections by place of residence.”

Even so, Navalny said he was not happy with the Russian Supreme Court ruling because they should have closed the case entirely due to lack of evidence.

By sending the case back for further investigation, it not only creates the nuisance for him of having to travel to the distant provincial city of Kirov where new court sessions will be held; he might wind up with the same or a worse sentence.

Navalny pointed out that he had not received any compensation for his legal and travel fees from the Russian government, although the ECHR had mandated such payment. He said he would appeal the decision to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the body which reviews ECHR sentences that are not enforced; the Russian government is also appealing the ECHR decision.

Ultimately, Navalny was phlegmatic about this new development:
Whatever plans the Kremlin has — to allow me into the elections, or not to allow, to sentence me again, or not sentence me — I don’t care. I will continue my cause will fight with that harmful thieves’ government with all available methods and will count on your support.”
The news of a possible Navalny run for the Russian presidency — assumed to be a coronation of Putin again — sparked a mixture of support, opposition, and trolling.

Translation: The Internet has already filled with memes with President Navalny. Alexey’s presidential campaign has virtually begun today.

The meme had a fake campaign poster, which employs the discredited “Pepe the Frog” image:

– Let’s Make Russia Great Again!

– Dollar rate at 32 rubles

– Computer with i7 core for 25,000 rubles

– Benefits for freelancers

– Free Internet without censorship

– Integration into NATO and EU

Navalny responded: 

Translation: And a grey cat with ears folded forward for every Russian citizen.

The reference is to a popular breed of cat in Russian often posted on social media.

Translation: @navalny @styazshkin This one?

Another Russian Twitter user made two fake campaign posters:

The first shows Trump and Navalny:

“For restriction of immigration, for reduction of the role of government in the economy, for the reduction of taxes and fees, for possession by citizens of arms; against the Islamization of the country, for fundamental reforms, oriented at the country’s domestic problems. All the country’s media and the entire political elite smear him.”

And another image shows Putin and Hillary Clinton:

“For free immigration into the country, for strengthening of the role of the state in the economy, for raising taxes and fees, against the possession of arms by citizens, against fundamental reforms, for a tolerant attitude toward Islamization, oriented toward geopolitical interests. All the country’s media and the entire political elite praise him.”

Will Navalny cross all the hurdles placed in his way by the Kirovles sentence and other court sentences widely seen as fabricated in retaliation for his exposes of official corruption?

The Moscow court ruling came as a surprise, given that last year, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that Russian law was superior to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, following the ECHR’s ruling that the Russian government had violated property laws in the Yukos case and had to pay shareholders 1.8 billion euros in compensation.

So it’s unclear why the Russian government (it would not likely be the courts on their own) decided to heed the ECHR in just this instance — unless they wanted to enable Navalny to serve as a prop in elections already assumed to be fixed on behalf of Vladimir Putin.

The move also could be misleading as it is designed to keep Navalny off balance. 

Often in the Russian criminal justice system, “returning a case for further investigation” is a way of making it go away short of acquittal, yet keeping it in case it is needed later. In Navalny’s case, there’s always the chance a re-trial could bring him even worse punishment. 

Most commentators are now leaning toward perceiving this decision as a way to enable Navalny’s presidential campaign, however.

Moscow Times writer Ola Cichowlas reported that analysts are figuring the Kremlin may be paving the way for  Navalny to serve as a defeatable alternative candidate. In 2013, Navalny gained nearly 30% of the votes in the Moscow ballot; another one of his sentences was suspended at that time enable him to run.

Ironically, two months after Navalny’s impressive showing, authorities cobbled together the Kirovles case, widely seen as politically-motivated punishment for his activism. The claim was that Navalny had resold lumber obtained from the state at an inflated price but evidence came only from one of the accused whose case was separated from that of Navalny and his co-defendant Ofitserov. The Kirovles conviction blocked Navalny from running in the parliamentary elections last September as convicts cannot register their candidacy.

Cichowlas writes:

While these are signals that the Kremlin is open to more competition, it is clearly an “overstatement” to call it a thaw, says Kynev. Russian political expert Stanislav Belkovsky says he did not expect the court decision, and that the development flew in the face of wider political developments. At the same time, the analyst did not exclude the possibility that the Kremlin may harbor radical aspirations to “adopt” Navalny as a partner in 2018. 

“It would make sense for the regime, both at home and abroad,” says Belkovsky. Political analyst Yekaterina Schulmann also thinks the Kremlin may be starting to search for new, unexpected candidates for the 2018 presidential election. The Kremlin’s strategists will face a tough task, which may force them to opt for “untested” candidates, says Schulmann. “On one hand, they will have to keep the voters intrigued to ensure a high turnout but on the other, they don’t want 20 unknown candidates on the ballot.” 

Journalists who had covered the Kirovles case wondered if they would now be spending long periods in the provincial city of Kirov again, 956 kilometers from Moscow.

Maria Eismont, who writes for Snob and Vedomosti, recalled the 12-hour long ride to Kirov on the Vyatka Train (named for the local river)

“And between breakfast and dinner we will sit in the courtroom and look at the pale face of Judge Blinov and wonder: does he have the conscience to jail the father of five children (then) Pytor Ofitserov, or not? Or suddenly will he decide to go down in history”?

Evgeny Feldman, a photojournalist who works for Novaya Gazeta, recalled how much had changed in the last three years for the independent media who had once covered Kirovles and may be covering it again.

He said RAPSI — a legal news site founded under the old RIA Novosti — used to provide live broadcasting from the court-room. But now — with the reorganization of Rossiya Segodnya, the state holding company, the firing of reporters and tighter control over both RIA and RAPSI —  there is no  more video or “crossing the double line,” a term popularized among journalists from a statement by TASS editors who took over RBC. (A reader corrected him, saying that RAPSI had not supplied the trial footage, but a production company under RIA.)

Nikita Belykh, once governor of Kirov Region who had even given testimony in Navalny’s case, is now behind bars awaiting trial on bribery charges, having been dismissed by Putin, Feldman noted. 

The reporters who covered Navalny’s trial three years ago have all moved to other jobs, some even abroad, he said. And Navalny’s brother is now in a labor colony.

Even with the suspension of the sentence, the authorities still had ways to harass Navalny in an effort to silence his criticism. The suspended sentence was reviewed in April 2015 when Navalny was given a 15-day jail sentence for picketing. His probation under the sentence had been extended in July 2014 to a total of five years which would take him to July 2019. 

A court also later reviewed whether Navalny’s satirical post about the Kirovles judge was libel.

Now these types of nuisances are removed, but the case still hangs over his head, and there are still the others. Another case related to the French company Yves Rocher involving a mail-order business Navalny had with his brother, Oleg, led to accusations that the pair had committed fraud, although Yves Rocher did not have a claim against him. Navalny received a suspended sentence in that case of 3.5 years of labor colony, but Oleg received an actual sentence of 3.5 years which he is now serving, and often being thrown in the punishment cell for his complaints about poor conditions. 

In short, the Russian criminal justice is a tool to manage a figure like Navalny who has a certain level of popularity — when he is needed to create the appearance of democracy and legitimacy for elections, the hammer is suspended, but when he actually succeeds and gains more visibility, the hammer comes down.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick