Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been sentenced to a further 19 years behind bars on charges his supporters have branded trumped up to keep him out of politics for even longer.
The 47-year-old, who is President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest domestic critic, is already serving more than 11 years in prison for fraud and other alleged crimes he argues are also bogus.
Mr Navalny’s political movement has been outlawed and declared “extremist”.
State prosecutors had asked the court to hand him another two decades in a penal colony on six separate criminal charges, including inciting and financing extremist activity and creating an extremist organisation.
It is widely seen as a deliberate, politically-motivated strategy by the Kremlin to silence its most vocal opponent, who exposed official corruption and organised large-scale protests.
In a message posted on social media via his lawyers and aides, Mr Navalny said the outcome of the case did not matter as he was also threatened with terrorism charges that could bring decades in jail.
He said: “It’s going to be a long sentence. What is called ‘Stalinist’.”
He said the aim was to frighten Russians, but urged them not to let that happen and to think hard about how best to resist what he called the “villains and thieves in the Kremlin”.
The charges relate to his role in his now-defunct movement inside Russia, which the authorities accused of trying to trigger a revolution by seeking to destabilise the country.
In his closing statement last month, delivered behind closed doors at the prison in Melekhovo, about 145 miles (235 km) east of Moscow where he is serving his sentences, Mr Navalny explained why he would keep opposing the Russian authorities.
He said: “For a new, free, rich country to be born, it must have parents. Those who want it. Who expect it and who are willing to make sacrifices for its birth.”
In a statement, Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation described his sentence on Friday as “an attempt to intimidate all of Alexei’s supporters.
It added: “Therefore, no matter what, we will continue to fight for his freedom, for Russia without Putin’s regime and against war.
“Everyone who had a hand in this absurd accusation will definitely face justice.”
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly condemned the Russian court’s decision.
“His abuse shows Russia’s complete disregard for even the most basic of human rights,” he said.
“Dissent cannot be silenced. The UK calls for his immediate release.”
Precious few are as brave as Alexei Navalny
Alexei Navalny predicted he would get a “Stalinist term” and that is exactly what happened. Nineteen years in a special regime penal colony, a prison for the very worst offenders.
His company, if he has any – and given the long spells in solitary confinement he has already had, that is not a given – will not be savoury. And this is all before the next case against him comes to court, which will be on terrorism charges.
If Vladimir Putin stays in power, Mr Navalny will not taste freedom for a very long time to come, if he survives at all.
But Mr Navalny knew that, and he came back to Russia anyway. It is the perennial question – why did he return home to the country which poisoned him, when he knew he faced certain jail?
His friend, fellow oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza, explained it so well in an interview to Sky News before he too was imprisoned. “A Russian politician has to be in Russia, it cannot be any other way,” he said. “The biggest gift we could give to Mr Putin and to the Kremlin would be if we all just gave up and ran away.”
Now both men face decades behind bars, as do so many more who have dared to stand up to the Kremlin.
Mr Navalny still manages to get his message out, on social media via his lawyers, and he remains a moral voice in Russia, calling on the Russian people not to be intimidated by the possibility of jail and to do their part, however small, to show their resistance to the war and to the Kremlin.
The great tragedy for Mr Navalny’s cause though is that it falls largely on deaf ears in Russia. His support was never huge.
These days many who might have gone to one of his rallies have left the country. The rest have been cowed into submission, fearful of doing much that could endanger their day-to-day existence.
Precious few Russians, precious few people, are as brave as he is.
Mr Putin, in power since 1999, is expected to run for another six-year presidential term in 2024.
With Russia waging what he calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine and locked in what he describes as an existential battle with the West, Mr Putin says it is vital for the country to remain united.
How Putin’s reign could come to an end
In February, the Russian leader ordered the FSB internal security service to step up its activities and said it was necessary “to identify and stop the illegal activities of those who are trying to divide and weaken our society”.
Mr Navalny, who in the last decade brought tens of thousands of people on to the streets, was detained in January 2021 after returning to Moscow from Germany where he had been treated for what German doctors said was poisoning by a Soviet-era nerve agent.
The Kremlin, which at one point accused him of working with the CIA to undermine Russia, denied any involvement in what happened to him and denies persecuting Mr Navalny.
It has claimed he never represented a serious political challenge and that his case is purely a legal matter for the courts.