Alexei Navalny arrested in Russia immediately after arriving from Germany after poisoning

Nataliya Vasilyeva
·3-min read
Alexei Navalny on the plane heading to Moscow -  KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP
Alexei Navalny on the plane heading to Moscow - KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was arrested immediately after returning to the country for the first time since he was poisoned with a nerve agent.

The plane carrying Mr Navalny from Germany, where the 44-year-old had been recovering from a poisoning he blames on Russian authorities, landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport around 8:15 pm.

The pilot had told passengers there was a delay for "technical reasons" and then that the flight had been diverted from Vnukovo, another Moscow airport where Mr Navalny's supporters and media had gathered for his return.

President Vladimir Putin's most well-known opponent was returning to Russia for the first time since the poisoning in August, in defiance of warnings from officials that they would arrest him for breaking the terms of a suspended prison sentence.

Mr Navalny is defying the Kremlin’s threats to jail him under one of several active criminal cases, which are widely regarded as politically motivated.

He rose to prominence a decade ago thanks to his anti-corruption investigations. He has since led massive anti-Kremlin protests in 2011-2012 and mounted an impressive presidential campaign before he was barred from running in the 2018 election.

He also won a third of the vote in the 2013 race for the Moscow mayor but has since been slapped with a flurry of charges and two suspended sentences, which disqualifies him from running for office.

Alexei Navalny was picked up by police moments after his plane landed - REUTERS/Polina Ivanova
Alexei Navalny was picked up by police moments after his plane landed - REUTERS/Polina Ivanova

Mr Navalny has reportedly made a full recovery from the August poisoning which several independent European laboratories attributed to the effects of the Novichok nerve agent.

The popular opposition leader’s return puts the Kremlin in a tight spot. Arresting Mr Navalny is likely to trigger wide public discontent and more international sanctions while letting him go free risks enraging hard-liners in the establishment who deem him to be a threat to national security.

Authorities at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport warned Mr Navalny’s supporters of fines and detentions for “unsanctioned gatherings” at the terminal.

Police arrested people waiting to meet the opposition leader in Moscow - Handout via REUTERS 
Police arrested people waiting to meet the opposition leader in Moscow - Handout via REUTERS

In Russia’s second-largest city of St Petersburg, several opposition activists were detained this morning as they were reportedly going to set off for Moscow to greet Mr Navalny.

Russian authorities raised the stakes ahead of Mr Navalny’s arrival by announcing a new criminal probe against him, this time for allegedly embezzling several million pounds worth of donations for his anti-corruption foundation.

A court could rule to keep him in jail pending the investigation.

Meanwhile, prison authorities confirmed earlier this month that they had issued an arrest warrant for Navalny, accusing him of failing to report to his probation officer at the end of December as his suspended sentence ran out.

Alexei Navalny had to be airlifted to Germany after falling severely ill  - Shutterstock/Shutterstock
Alexei Navalny had to be airlifted to Germany after falling severely ill - Shutterstock/Shutterstock

Defying the mounting threats, Mr Navalny in a video address earlier this week, said that he was coming back to Moscow on Sunday despite the fact that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, “is asking his servants to do all it takes to make sure I don’t come back.”

The Kremlin denied any official involvement in the attack that nearly killed Mr Navalny despite the fact that independent investigative group Bellingcat identified several Russian intelligence agents who had been trailing Navalny for days before he fell suddenly ill.

Adding to the embarrassment for the Russian intelligence community, the opposition politician last month released an audio confession from one of the men allegedly behind the poisoning.