MOSCOW – Top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny says he plans to go home to Russia next weekend despite the authorities' threats to put him once again behind bars.
Navalny, who has been convalescing in Germany from an August poisoning with a nerve agent that he has blamed on the Kremlin, charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin was now trying to deter him from coming home with new legal motions. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied a role in the opposition leader’s poisoning.
“Putin is stamping his feet demanding to do everything so that that I don't return home," Navalny said Wednesday while announcing his return on Instagram. “The people who tried to kill me got offended because I survived and now they are threatening to put me behind bars.”
He said he will fly home from Germany on Sunday.
At the end of December, the Federal Penitentiary Service warned Navalny that he faced a real prison term if he fails to immediately report to its office in line with the terms of a suspended sentence he received for a 2014 conviction on charges of embezzlement and money-laundering that he rejected as politically motivated. The European Court for Human Rights had ruled that his conviction was unlawful.
In a parallel move just before the New Year, Russia's main investigative agency also opened a new criminal case against Navalny on charges of large-scale fraud related to his alleged mishandling of $5 million in private donations to his Anti-Corruption Foundation and other organizations. Navalny has also dismissed those accusations as crudely fabricated.
“They are doing everything to scare me,” Navalny said in his Instagram video. “The only thing left for Putin to do is to put up a giant billboard on top of the Kremlin saying ”Alexei, please don't return home under any circumstances!"
German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said Berlin has “taken note” of reports of Navalny’s plans, but didn’t answer a question about the possible risk he faces.
“I can only add that Mr. Navalny is free to make his decision and that we are glad he recovered after this attack that was carried out on him,” German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr said.
Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on Aug. 20. He was transferred from a hospital in Siberia to a Berlin hospital two days later.
Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.
Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning. They refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing the lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.
Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he described as an alleged member of a group of officers of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who purportedly poisoned him in August and then tried to cover it up.
The FSB dismissed the recording as fake.
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.