MOSCOW – Russia is dismissing Western criticism as "hysterics" after a Moscow court on February 2 sentenced Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny to prison, sparking more protests and arrests in the country.
Judge Natalya Repnikova ordered Navalny to prison for 2 years and 8 months for violating terms of parole while he had been recovering in Germany from a nerve-agent poisoning the Kremlin critic accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering. Navalny's lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, said the ruling will be appealed.
The court decision drew strong criticism in the West, with the United States, Britain, Canada, and the European Union mulling a coordinated response against Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 3 accused the West of "going overboard" in its reaction to the ruling, which came after the Kremlin repeatedly dismissed calls for an investigation into the opposition figure's poisoning over the summer.
"The hysterics that we've heard over the judicial proceedings in Navalny's case is definitely going overboard," Lavrov was quoted as saying by TASS.
More than 1,400 people across the country, including more than 1,100 in Moscow, had been detained in protests following the court decision by the early hours of February 3, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info.
Russia experienced some of the largest anti-government protests in a decade over the past two weekends with hundreds of thousands assembling in more than 100 cities around the country. Police at times used violence as they detained some 10,000 people.
Navalny was detained upon his return from Germany on January 17. The Russian Federal Penitentiary Service had accused him of parole violations relating to a suspended sentence he had been serving in a 2014 embezzlement case widely considered political.
"We are deeply dismayed by the sentencing of Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny by a court in Moscow yesterday," UN Human Rights Office Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement on February 3. She noted that that the European Court of Human Rights had already unanimously found the fraud case to be "arbitrary, unfair and manifestly unreasonable."
Navalny has become the nation's most influential opposition figure after years of skillfully harnessing social media to channel growing discontent over a host of issues ranging from falling living standards to perceptions of corruption against Putin and the ruling elite.
In a statement to the court on February 2, Navalny repeatedly mocked Putin while stressing the aim of the hearing was to try to intimidate anyone who stood up to the Kremlin.
LISTEN To Excerpts Of Navalny's Speech In Court
"The main thing in this whole trial isn't what happens to me. Locking me up isn't difficult," he told the court. "What matters most is why this is happening. This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They're imprisoning one person to frighten millions."
Putin opted for such a harsh sentence "to make Navalny -- and others -- realize that they face the prospect of spending the rest of their lives behind bars," Tatiana Stanovaya, a founder of the think tank R.Politik, said in a tweet.
She warned that other groups, including liberal media, nongovernmental organizations, and opposition-minded activists, will face increased pressure as the Kremlin seeks to quell dissent.
The sweeping crackdown has targeted many of Navalny's aides with detention, fines, and house arrest.
Recent developments come as the Kremlin prepares for key parliamentary elections in September. Putin controls the parliament through the ruling United Russia party, which rubber-stamps his legislation.
However, the party's ratings are slumping as the economy and wages stagnate. Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation is seeking to chip away at Kremlin control through a campaign to encourage voters to reject United Russia candidates at the ballot box.
"Putin needs Navalny in jail during Russia's next round of elections. That is obvious. He fears Navalny," Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said in a tweet.
The West's relationship with Russia had already been tense following a host of malign activities that the EU, the United States, and other countries have pinned on the Kremlin, including election interference, state-sponsored hacks, and the use of chemical weapons.
The jailing of Navalny could trigger yet more moves against the Kremlin as the West, with new leadership in Washington, seeks to show greater resolve on a range of issues with Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was "deeply concerned" by Navalny's jailing and called on Russia to release "the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights."
"Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, we will coordinate closely with our allies and partners to hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens," he said in a statement.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is expected in Moscow from February 4-6 to meet with top Russian officials and members of civil society, issued a similar condemnation ahead of his visit.
In a statement on behalf of the EU, he said the bloc would discuss "implications and possible further action" at an upcoming foreign ministers meeting.
European officials previously said they would wait for the court decision to make any move, including further sanctions on top of those imposed following Navalny's poisoning.