Jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has accused Russian officials of "fabricating" a slander case against him for comments he wrote on Twitter about several people who appeared in a pro-Kremlin video.
Navalny was in court on February 5 to face charges he slandered a World War II veteran who took part in the promotional video in support of last year's constitutional amendments that cleared the way for President Vladimir Putin to run for two more terms in office after 2024 if he wants.
Navalny was charged after describing the veteran, Ignat Artyomenko, and others in the video as "the shame of the country" and "traitors" on Twitter in June 2020.
"I understand very well how this case arose, why it was fabricated...the whole thing was invented," Navalny told the court.
"This is a PR process, the Kremlin needs the headlines, 'Navalny Slandered A Veteran,'" he added.
The trial centers on a social-media post from June 2 where Navalny, one of Putin's most vocal critics, described those in the promotional video as “traitors,” “people with no conscience,” and “corrupt lackeys.”
Russia's Investigative Committee said the comments contained "deliberately false information denigrating the honor and dignity" of the World War II veteran.
Navalny faces penalties ranging from a fine of 1 million rubles ($14,255) to 240 hours of community service if convicted.
The prosecutor said in court that Navalny knew that his comment that people in the video were "corrupt lackeys" was false, adding that the words caused "moral harm" to the veteran.
The trial was interrupted at one point in the afternoon after Artyomenko said he was feeling ill and was taken away by ambulance.
Before he was taken away, Artyomenko said he wanted a public apology from Navalny, who said he didn't know who the veteran was and believed that the elderly man was being used "like a doll on a chain."
"You have perverted criminal law, and now you are using Artyomenko to defend the thief Putin and his friends with [Artyomenko's] medals," Navalny told the court.
Judge Vera Akimova adjourned the hearing until February 12 after listening to the testimonies of Artyomenko and three other witnesses in the case.
The new trial comes just three days after the Kremlin critic was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence handed down in a widely criticized embezzlement case. Navalny will serve 2 years and 8 months of the sentence because of time already spent in detention, according to the ruling.
The sentencing sparked mass protests across Russia and condemnations by the West. U.S. President Joe Biden on February 4 called on Moscow to release the opposition leader “immediately and without condition.”
"Mr. Navalny, like all Russian citizens, is entitled to his rights under the Russian Constitution. He's been targeted for exposing corruption,” Biden said in his first foreign-policy address as president where he warned Moscow that the U.S. would no longer be "rolling over" when it came to human rights abuses and other activities that harmed U.S. interests.
More than 10,000 Russian protesters have been arrested during protests demanding Navalny’s release.