Jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has issued a scathing assessment of President Vladimir Putin and Russia's justice system at a court hearing as his regional network said it will disband amid a push by prosecutors to declare the main pillars of the Kremlin critic's political organization "extremist."
In his first appearance since declaring an end to a hunger strike last week, Navalny appeared on April 29 at an appeal hearing for a case in which he was found guilty of defaming a World War II veteran and defiantly called for "prosecutors to be brought to criminal justice."
Navalny, his head shaved and looking gaunt following his refusal to eat for more than three weeks, referred to Putin as "the emperor with no clothes" and charged that Russia under his rule "continues to degrade every year."
"The crown slipping down over the emperor's ears: There are lies on TV, trillions of rubles have been spent, but our country is falling into poverty," Navalny said.
WATCH: Navalny Delivers Scathing Criticism Of Putin
Shortly after his emotional speech, the judge rejected Navalny's appeal.
Putin's most vocal critic's comments via video link with the court came hours after his close ally, Leonid Volkov, posted a video on YouTube saying the Navalny regional network was shutting down as it had become "impossible" to maintain operations amid a crackdown by Russian authorities.
"This is a gut punch, a punch to my heart," said Volkov, who fled Russia for Lithuania fearing for his security.
"But did we give up? Certainly we aren't giving up," he added, saying some headquarters will continue their activities as independent social and political groups.
The Moscow City Court is expected to rule on a motion put forward by prosecutors to label three organizations tied to Navalny -- the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the Citizens' Rights Defense Foundation, and Navalny's regional headquarters -- as "extremist."
Prosecutors said the organizations were "engaged in creating conditions for destabilizing the social and sociopolitical situation under the guise of their liberal slogans."
Rights activists have sharply criticized the prosecutor's motion as a "scandalous" attempt to silence and oppress any opposition and dissent in the country.
"The preservation of the operations [at Navalny's headquarters across Russia] in its current form is impossible," Volkov said.
The expected court ruling means anyone connected to the operations "immediately will be charged with extremism and this will lead to prison sentences for those who work at the headquarters, those who cooperate with them, and those who help them," Volkov added.
Under Russian law, membership in or funding of an "extremist" organization is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The move, which Amnesty International has called "one of the most serious blows for the rights to freedom of expression and association in Russia's post-Soviet history," is the latest in a series of assaults on Navalny since he suffered a nerve-agent poisoning attack in August 2020.
He and his supporters blame that attack on Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives acting at the behest of authoritarian President Vladimir Putin.
Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on April 29 its activities will not cease, regardless of the upcoming court hearing.
The Anti-Corruption Foundation may not exist as a legal entity after the court rules in the case, Zhdanov said on YouTube, but its activities will continue.
Navalny spent weeks in Germany recuperating from the attack. When he returned to Russia in January, he was arrested and charged with violating his parole terms from an old embezzlement case that he says was trumped up to hinder his political activity. He is currently serving a 2 1/2-year sentence at a prison in the Vladimir region.
Navalny launched the hunger strike in prison on March 31, demanding he be examined by his own doctor amid what his supporters have described as a "deliberate campaign" by prison officials to undermine his health. Though he ended the strike on April 22, he said he was still pushing for his legal right to be seen by a doctor of his own choice.
In the case at the heart of his appeal on April 29, Navalny had mocked the people in a Kremlin-organized promotional video, calling them "corrupt lackeys and traitors."
One of the people in the video was a 94-year-old World War II veteran, and a court last month fined Navalny 850,000 rubles ($11,500) for allegedly slandering him.
His allies called the trial a politically motivated sham, while Navalny accused Russian officials of "fabricating" the case against him.
It remains unclear what evidence the authorities have against Navalny's foundation and regional offices in the case to be heard on May 17, as some of the case files have been classified as secret.
Ivan Pavlov, the lawyer representing Navalny's organizations in court, said after a preliminary hearing on April 29 that the defense team had filed a lawsuit to declassify the files. They also filed a motion to allow Navalny to participate in the court proceedings, "since his name is mentioned on every page of the lawsuit."
Pavlov also said that a criminal case had been launched against Navalny, Volkov, and Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, on charges of creating an organization that infringes on people's rights, a criminal offense punishable by up to four years in prison.