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Kremlin rebuffs European court's demand to free Navalny

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Babuskinsky District Court

In this photo taken from a footage provided by the Babuskinsky District Court Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny writes notes as he stands in a cage during a hearing on his charges for defamation in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia. Navalny is accused of defaming a World War II veteran who was featured in a video last year advertising constitutional amendments that allowed an extension of President Vladimir Putin's rule. (Babuskinsky District Court Press Service via AP)

MOSCOW – The Kremlin on Thursday strongly rejected the European human rights court's order to release jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny as “inadmissible” meddling in Russia's affairs.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday's decision by the European Court of Human Rights, which demanded that Russia free Navalny immediately, was “unlawful" and biased.

Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Peskov denounced what he described as the Strasbourg-based court's “interference with the Russian judiciary, which we view as inadmissible.”

Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption investigator and President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was arrested last month upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.

Earlier this month, a Moscow court sentenced Navalny to two years and eight months in prison for violating terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated and the European court has ruled to be unlawful.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the ECHR ordered the Russian government to release Navalny, citing “the nature and extent of risk to the applicant’s life.” The Strasbourg-based court noted that Navalny has contested Russian authorities’ argument that they had taken sufficient measures to safeguard his life and well-being in custody following the nerve agent attack.

In the past, Moscow has abided by the ECHR’s rulings awarding compensations to Russian citizens who have contested verdicts in Russian courts, but it never faced a demand by the European court to set a convict free.

In a reflection of its simmering irritation with the European court’s verdicts, Russia last year adopted a constitutional amendment declaring the priority of national legislation over international law. Russian authorities might now use that provision to reject the ECHR’s ruling.

Navalny’s chief strategist Leonid Volkov argued, however, that Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe obliges it to fulfill the court’s ruling. He warned on Facebook that the country risks losing its membership in the continent’s top human rights organization if it fails to abide by the order.

Asked during the conference call with reporters if Russia could leave the Council of Europe, Peskov responded that “we aren't looking for a confrontation.”

But Pyotr Tolstoy, a deputy speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament who has led its delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, warned Thursday that Moscow could exit the body if it comes under pressure.

“If it contradicts our views of our sovereignty and dignity, we will make a corresponding decision and leave before they start that absolutely shameful process,” Tolstoy said in televised remarks.

Navalny’s arrest and imprisonment fueled a wave of protests across Russia. Authorities responded with a sweeping crackdown, detaining about 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or given jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days.

Russia has rejected Western criticism of Navalny’s arrest and the crackdown on demonstrations as meddling in its internal affairs.

In a sarcastic Facebook post on Thursday, Navalny said that prison authorities notified him that he was marked as a flight risk.

“I started laughing,” said Navalny who is held in the maximum-security Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow. “And then I asked them: ’Is it a joke? I already have been escorted by SWAT troops in helmets toting assault rifles, and now they probably will put me in chains.'”