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Kremlin Critic Navalny's Jail Switcheroo Leaves Press, Supporters Hanging

Aleksei Navalny (right)
Aleksei Navalny (right)

MOSCOW -- Any hopes that Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny may have had for a dramatic photo-op following his release from jail were effectively quashed by his longtime nemesis: the Russian authorities.

Navalny, a prominent opponent of President Vladimir Putin whose recent arrest drew international condemnation, was freed on April 10 after serving a 15-day sentence in connection with an anticorruption demonstration he organized in Moscow.

But as reporters, camera crews, supporters, and a few detractors waited for him to exit a holding facility in northwestern Moscow, a key Navalny aide informed the crowd that he had learned of a last-second change in plans.

Leonid Volkov, head of Navalny’s anticorruption foundation, told the gathering that Navalny had called him and said he had been taken to another police station in Konkovo, in southern Moscow.

"They released him precisely at 2:28 p.m. (1128 GMT), as they should have. Apparently [authorities] got scared or something," Volkov said.

Volkov likened the move to another switcheroo in December 2011, when Navalny was moved to a different facility shortly before his release after a jail term connected to protests he helped lead against parliamentary elections marred by fraud allegations.

This time around, there was some initial confusion about Navalny's whereabouts, with his spokeswoman saying shortly after his release that his associates "haven't been able to get in contact with him."

But shortly before 4 p.m. Moscow time, a freed Navalny tweeted out a photograph of himself with the caption: "Hello everyone."

Navalny said in a post on his website that he was taken to the Konkovo precinct at around noon for a "prophylactic conversation" with police prior to his release.

"No one gave me a chance to warn anyone (apologies to those who were waiting for me)," he wrote. "And I didn’t have any money, keys, or a telephone."

He said that after his release a police officer allowed him to call his wife and then drove him to a subway station and bought him a ticket.

Navalny was sentenced on March 27, one day after he was arrested near the site of the anticorruption demonstration he organized in central Moscow, where more than 1,000 people were detained.

The government says the protest was illegal because it had not been authorized by city authorities, and contends that it disrupted public order.

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in dozens of cities across Russia on March 26, the largest street protests against the government since a series of rallies in 2011-2012 that Navalny helped lead.

Police haul away protesters at demonstrations in Moscow on March 26.
Police haul away protesters at demonstrations in Moscow on March 26.

Russia's response to the demonstrations drew criticism from both Washington and Brussels, with the U.S. State Department saying it was "troubled" by Navalny's detention and that "detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values."

The EU called on Russia to allow people "basic freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected the criticism, accusing the West of applying a "double standard" concerning protests in Russia.

Navalny has been aggressively raising his profile nationwide in recent months ahead of his planned run for president in March 2018. That election is widely expected to result in a new six-year term for Putin.

Navalny has been setting up campaign offices across the country, though he may be prevented from running if his appeal against a felony conviction is rejected.

Navalny has twice been convicted and handed suspended sentences in separate criminal cases involving fraud and financial-crimes allegations. He denies the charges, calling them Kremlin-orchestrated retribution for his political activism.

The March 26 protests that Navalny spearheaded followed an investigative report by his anticorruption organization alleging that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has used corrupt practices to amass pricey assets such as luxury real estate in Russia and abroad.

Both the Kremlin and Medvedev have brushed off Navalny's investigation.

Medvedev last week for the first time responded to Navalny’s report, calling the allegations "rubbish" and "nonsense" but not offering specifics.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service in Moscow.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.