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Jailed Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny Launches Hunger Strike

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MOSCOW (AP) — Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Wednesday he has started a hunger strike to protest authorities’ failure to provide proper treatment for his back and leg pains.

In a statement posted on Instagram, Navalny complained about prison officials’ refusal to give him the right medicines and to allow his doctor to visit him behind bars.

He also protested the hourly checks a guard makes on him at night, saying they amount to sleep deprivation torture.

Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has started a hunger strike to protest a lack of medical care and gu



Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has started a hunger strike to protest a lack of medical care and guard-enforced sleep deprivation.

The 44-year-old Navalny, who is President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken domestic opponent, was arrested in January upon his return 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.

Navalny’s poisoning and conviction have further strained Russia’s ties with the United States and the European Union, which sank to post-Cold War lows after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, its meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, hacking attacks and other actions.

His arrest fueled a series of protests that drew tens of thousands across Russia. Authorities detained about 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or given jail terms of up to two weeks.

Navalny said the August poisoning made him wonder about the cause of his current ailments. He said he had no choice but to start a hunger strike because his physical condition has worsened, with back pains having spread to his right leg and numbness in his left leg.

“What else could I do?” he wrote. “I have declared a hunger strike demanding that they allow a visit by an invited doctor in compliance with the law. So I’m lying here, hungry, but still with two legs.”

Last month, Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating the terms of his probation during convalescence in Germany. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated — and which the European Сourt of Human Rights has ruled to be unlawful.

Navalny was moved this month from a Moscow jail to a penal colony in Pokrov in the Vladimir region, 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of the Russian capital. The facility called IK-2 stands out among Russian penitentiaries for its particularly strict inmate routines, which include standing to attention for hours.

Navalny’s Instagram also had a picture of a letter to the prison chief, dated Wednesday, in which he announced the hunger strike.

“Every convict has the right to invite a specialist for a check and consultation,” he wrote. “So I demand to let a doctor see me and declare a hunger strike until it happens.”

In a sarcastic reference to the nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on Russia’s top security agency, the FSB, Navalny wrote to the prison chief that “given a recent attempt by the FSB operatives to kill me with chemical weapons, which state-controlled medics cast as a ‘metaboliс problem,’ I’m haunted by vague doubts about the cause of my illness and recovery prospects.”

Convicted opposition activist Alexei Navalny is serving his sentence at Penal Colony No 2, near the town of Pokrov.



Convicted opposition activist Alexei Navalny is serving his sentence at Penal Colony No 2, near the town of Pokrov.

Russia’s prison service said last week that Navalny had undergone medical check-ups and described his condition as “stable and satisfactory.” In a statement that followed his declaration of a hunger strike, it claimed that Navalny is being given “all the necessary medical assistance in accordance with his current health indicators.”

But Navalny has complained that authorities only gave him basic painkiller pills and ointment for his back and legs while refusing to accept medications prescribed earlier by his doctor or to share the diagnosis from his examination.

In a note earlier this month, Navalny described his prison as a “friendly concentration camp.” He said he hadn’t seen “even a hint of violence” there but lived under controls that he compared to those described in George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Earlier this week, he said he already had received six reprimands — warnings that could lead to solitary confinement — for offenses such as getting up 10 minutes before the wake-up call and refusing to watch a video lecture that he called “idiotic.”

Navalny, whom prison authorities had earlier marked as a flight risk, said he was subject to particularly close oversight, including a guard waking him up every hour at night and filming him to demonstrate he is in the required place.

“Instead of medical assistance, I’m subjected to sleep deprivation torture, being woken up eight times every night,” he said in Wednesday’s statement.

The prison service insisted that Navalny has been treated in strict conformity with the law and the night checks are part of a regular routine that “don’t disrupt convicts’ rest.”

During a video call with Putin on Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized the need for Russia to protect Navalny’s health and to respect his rights in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, according to Macron’s office.

The Kremlin said in its readout of the call that Putin offered an “objective explanation” in response to questions Merkel and Macron asked about Navalny.

Russian officials have rejected U.S. and EU demands to free Navalny and to stop a police crackdown on his supporters. Moscow also has rebuffed a European Court of Human Rights ruling in favor of his release as “inadmissible” meddling in Russia’s home affairs.

Navalny’s associates have urged Russians to sign up for the next protest to demand his release, promising to set a date for the demonstration when the number of people willing to take part reaches at least 500,000 nationwide.

More than 360,000 have registered since a dedicated website opened on March 23.

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Vladimir Putin To Get Vaccinated For Coronavirus On Tuesday

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CoviVac

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin said he will get a coronavirus vaccine shot on Tuesday, several months after widespread vaccination started in Russia.

Kremlin opponents have criticized Putin for not getting vaccinated amid a comparatively slow rollout of the shot in Russia, arguing that his reluctance is contributing to the already extensive hesitance about the vaccine. Russia, where only 4.3% of the 146-million population have received at least one dose, lags behind a number of countries in terms of the vaccination rate.

Surveys by Russia’s top independent pollster Levada Center have shown that a number of Russians reluctant to get vaccinated with Sputnik V has grown in recent months — to 62% in February from 58% in December. The Kremlin has said it doesn’t see a connection between Putin not getting vaccinated and public trust in the Russian COVID-19 vaccine.

Putin, 68, told a meeting with government officials and vaccine developers on Monday that he will get his shot “tomorrow,” without specifying which coronavirus vaccine out of the three authorized for use in Russia he will take.

Russian authorities have given regulatory approval to three domestically developed shots. Sputnik V has been approved last August with much fanfare at home and criticism abroad, because at the time it had only been tested on a few dozen people.

But a recent study published in British medical journal The Lancet showed the Sputnik V is 91% effective and appears to prevent inoculated individuals from becoming severely ill with COVID-19, although it’s still unclear if the vaccine can prevent the spread of the disease.

Two other Russian vaccines, EpiVacCorona and CoviVac, have also received regulatory approval before completing late-stage trials experts say are necessary to ensure their safety and effectiveness in line with established scientific protocol. EpiVacCorona is still undergoing these trials, while CoviVac was to begin them in March. No data on efficacy of these two vaccines have been released.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov also wouldn’t say which one of the three Putin will take on Tuesday, saying only that “all of them are good and reliable.”

According to the Russian president, 6.3 million people in Russia have already received at least one shot, and more than 4.3 million have had two doses.

Putin said that 60% of Russian adults need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, which requires a total of 69.8 million vaccines. As of March 17, around 8.9 million two-dose sets of Sputnik V have been released into circulation in Russia, as well as over 115,000 two-dose sets of EpiVacCorona, the Russian leader said.

“Today we can confidently say … that the Russian vaccines are absolutely reliable and safe,” Putin said. “It is an absolute success of our scientists and specialists.”

Putin and his spokesman have been repeatedly asked why the president hasn’t been vaccinated so far. In December, the Russian leader said Sputnik V wasn’t being recommended to people of a certain age, adding that “vaccines have not yet reached people like me.”

At the time, the shot was only being offered to people ages 18 to 60, but in less then two weeks after Putin’s remarks Russian health authorities cleared the vaccine for those older than 60.

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Alexei Navalny Condemns ‘Thieving Little’ Putin In Dramatic Courtroom Speech

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Alexander II

In an unsparing courtroom speech delivered before he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a labor camp on Tuesday, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sharply criticized President Vladimir Putin, describing him as a “thieving little man in his bunker.”

Navalny was arrested Jan. 17 upon his return to Moscow from Germany, where he’d spent five months recovering from a failed assassination attempt. An investigation by Bellingcat, CNN and Navalny himself found that members of the Russian FSB security service sneaked into Navalny’s hotel room in August and applied a lethal nerve agent to a pair of his underpants. (Russia has denied the claim.)

Navalny, 44, repeatedly returned to the poisoning in his remarks, according to an English translation provided by the Russian news outlet Meduza.

“I mortally offended him by surviving,” Navalny said. “And then I committed an even more serious offense: I didn’t run and hide.”

“[Putin will] go down in history as nothing but a poisoner. We all remember Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Well, now we’ll have Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner,” Navalny continued, referring to Alexander II, a 19th-century czar of Russia, and Yaroslav I, an 11th-century grand prince of Kiev.

Massive protests swept Russia following Navalny’s arrest, spurred in part by a video investigation released by his organization that disclosed a secret billion-dollar palace Putin has allegedly built for himself on the Black Sea. Police detained more than 5,750 people this past Sunday. More than 1,900 of those were in Moscow, the most since the Soviet era, according to the Associated Press.

Under Putin, Navalny said, “lawlessness and tyranny [have] become the essence of a political system.”

“I hope very much that people won’t look at this trial as a signal that they should be more afraid,” he added, encouraging Russians to continue to protest.

“This [trial] isn’t a demonstration of strength — it’s a show of weakness. You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. I hope very much that people will realize this. And they will. Because you can’t lock up the whole country.”

Navalny was originally arrested at the request of Russia’s penitentiary service for violating the terms of a probation agreement from a 2014 money-laundering conviction he says was politically driven. His legal team argued that he was justifiably unable to satisfy the requirements of his probation, including registering in person with authorities, while he was lying in a coma in Germany recovering from the poisoning.



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Russia’s Sputnik V Vaccine 92% Effective In Fighting COVID-19, Study Says

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Danny Altmann

MOSCOW (Reuters) — Scientists gave Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine the green light on Tuesday saying it was almost 92% effective in fighting COVID-19 based on peer-reviewed late-stage trial results published in The Lancet international medical journal.

Experts said the Phase III trial results meant the world had another effective weapon to fight the deadly pandemic and justified to some extent Moscow’s decision to roll out the vaccine before final data had been released.

The results, collated by the Gamaleya Institute in Moscow that developed and tested the vaccine, were in line with efficacy data reported at earlier stages of the trial, which has been running in Moscow since September.

“The development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticized for unseemly haste, corner-cutting, and an absence of transparency,” said Ian Jones, professor at the University of Reading, and Polly Roy, professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“But the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated,” the scientists, who were not involved in the study, said in a comment shared by The Lancet. “Another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19.”

The results were based on data from 19,866 volunteers, of whom a quarter received a placebo, the researchers, led by the Gamaleya Institute’s Denis Logunov, said in The Lancet.

Since the trial began in Moscow, there were 16 recorded cases of symptomatic COVID-19 among people who received the vaccine, and 62 among the placebo group, the scientists said.

This showed that a two-dose regimen of the vaccine — two shots based on two different viral vectors, administered 21 days apart — was 91.6% effective against symptomatic COVID-19.

‘RUSSIA WAS RIGHT’

The Sputnik V vaccine is the fourth worldwide to have Phase III results published in leading peer-reviewed medical journals following the shots developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Pfizer’s shot had the highest efficacy rate at 95%, closely followed by Moderna’s vaccine and Sputnik V while AstraZeneca’s vaccine had an average efficacy of 70%.

Sputnik V has also now been approved for storage in normal fridges, as opposed to freezers, making transportation and distribution easier, Gamaleya scientists said on Tuesday.

Russia approved the vaccine in August, before the large-scale trial had begun, saying it was the first country to do so for a COVID-19 shot. It named it Sputnik V, in homage to the world’s first satellite, launched by the Soviet Union.

Small numbers of frontline health workers began receiving it soon after and a large-scale roll out started in December, though access was limited to those in specific professions, such as teachers, medical workers and journalists.

In January, the vaccine was offered to all Russians.

“Russia was right all along,” Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is responsible for marketing the vaccine abroad, told reporters on Tuesday.

He said the results supported Russia’s decision to begin administering Sputnik V to frontline workers while the trial was still underway, and suggested skepticism of such moves was politically motivated.

“The Lancet did very unbiased work despite some of the political pressures that may have been out there,” he said.

EFFECTIVE IN ELDERLY

The number of people vaccinated in Russia has remained low so far. Authorities have pointed to some early issues with scaling up production while polls have shown low demand among Russians for the vaccine.

Russia has already shared data from its Phase III trial with regulators in several countries and has begun the process of submitting it to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for approval in the European Union, Dmitriev said.

The data release comes as Europe scrambles to secure enough shots for its 450 million citizens due to production cuts by AstraZeneca and Pfizer. The U.S. roll-out, meanwhile, has been hampered by the need to store shots in ultra-cold freezers and uneven planning across states.

There were 2,144 volunteers over 60 in the Sputnik V trial and the shot was shown to be 91.8% effective when tested on this older group, with no serious side-effects reported that could be associated with the vaccine, The Lancet summary said.

RDIF’s Dimitriev also said the Gamaleya Institute was testing the vaccine against new variants of COVID-19 and the early signs were positive.

The vaccine was also found to be 100% effective against moderate or severe COVID-19, as there were no such cases among the group of 78 participants who were infected and symptomatic at 21 days after the first shot was administered.

Four deaths of participants occurred, but none was considered associated with vaccination, The Lancet said.

“The efficacy looks good, including in the over 60s,” said Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London. “It’s good to have another addition to the global arsenal.”

ONE DOSE VERSION

The authors of the study noted that because COVID-19 cases were only detected when trial participants reported symptoms, further research was needed to understand Sputnik V’s efficacy on asymptomatic cases and transmission.

Sputnik V has been approved by 15 countries, including Argentina, Hungary and the United Arab Emirates and this will rise to 25 by the end of next week, the RDIF’s Dmitriev said.

The sovereign wealth fund also said vaccinations using Sputnik V will begin in a dozen countries including Bolivia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Iran.

Hungary was the first member of the European Union to break ranks and unilaterally approve the vaccine last month. It is set to receive a first batch of 40,000 doses on Tuesday.

Germany has said it would use Sputnik V if it is approved by Europe’s drug regulator while France has said it could buy any efficient vaccine.

However, large shipments of the shot have only been sent so far to Argentina, which has received enough doses to vaccinate about 500,000 people.

“Now all doubts are cleared up,” Argentine Science Minister Roberto Salvarezza told local radio station La Red, citing “the confirmation in a prestigious scientific publication.”

Production for export will primarily be done by RDIF’s manufacturing partners abroad, the fund has said.

On Tuesday, Dmitriev said production had started in India and South Korea, and would launch in China this month. Trial doses have also been produced by a manufacturer in Brazil.

Russia is conducting a small-scale clinical trial of a one-dose version of the vaccine, which developers expect to have an efficacy rate of 73% to 85%.

(Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London and Nicolas Misculin in Buenos Aires; Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Mark Potter and David Clarke)

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Kremlin Foe Navalny Faces Court That May Jail Him For Years

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny faced a court hearing Tuesday that could end with him being sent to prison for years and fuel more protests against the Kremlin.

The 44-year-old Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator who is the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny the charge and claim, despite tests by several European labs, that they have no proof he was poisoned.

Russia’s penitentiary service alleges that Navalny violated the probation conditions of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money laundering conviction that he has rejected as politically motivated. It has asked the Simonovsky District Court in Moscow to turn his 3 1/2-year suspended sentence into one that he must serve in prison.

Navalny and his lawyers have argued that while he was recovering in Germany from the poisoning, he couldn’t register with Russian authorities in person as required by his probation. Navalny also insisted that his due process rights were crudely violated during his arrest and described his jailing as a travesty of justice.

“I came back to Moscow after I completed the course of treatment,” Navalny said during Tuesday’s hearing. “What else could I have done?”

Navalny’s jailing has triggered massive protests across Russia over the past two weekends, in which tens of thousands took to the streets to demand his release, chanting slogans against Putin. Police detained over 5,750 people during Sunday’s rallies, including more than 1,900 in Moscow, the biggest number the nation has seen since Soviet times. Most were released after being handed court summons, and face fines or jail terms of seven to 15 days. Several people faced criminal charges over alleged violence against police.

In this handout photo provided by Moscow City Court, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in the cage during a hea



In this handout photo provided by Moscow City Court, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in the cage during a hearing to a motion from the Russian prison service to convert the suspended sentence of Navalny from the 2014 criminal conviction into a real prison term in the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 2, 2021. 

Navalny’s team called for another demonstration Tuesday outside the Moscow court building, but police were out in force there, cordoning off the nearby streets and making random arrests. More than 230 people were detained, according to the OVD-Info group that monitors arrests.

Some Navalny supporters still managed to approach the court building. A young woman climbed a large pile of snow across the street from the courthouse and held up a poster saying “Freedom to Navalny.” Less than a minute later, a police officer took her away.

After his arrest, Navalny’s team released a two-hour YouTube video featuring an opulent Black Sea residence allegedly built for Putin. The video has been viewed over 100 million times, fueling discontent as ordinary Russians struggle with an economic downturn, the coronavirus pandemic and widespread corruption during Putin’s years in office.

Putin insisted last week that neither he nor his relatives own any of the properties mentioned in the video, and his long time confidant, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, claimed that he owns it.

As part of efforts to squelch the protests, the authorities have targeted Navalny’s associates and activists across the country. His brother Oleg, top ally Lyubov Sobol and several others were put under house arrest for two months and face criminal charges of violating coronavirus restrictions.

The jailing of Navalny and the crackdown on protests have stoked international outrage, with Western officials calling for his release and condemning the arrests of demonstrators.

“Sweden and the EU are concerned about the situation with democracy, civil society and human rights in Russia,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, the current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said during talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.

The diplomat said Navalny’s poisoning and the response by Russian authorities to the street protests will be part of the discussion.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who will visit Moscow later this week, has criticized the detentions and the disproportionate use of force against protesters, emphasizing that Russia must comply with its international commitments on human rights.

Russia has dismissed U.S. and EU officials’ criticism as meddling in its domestic affairs and said that Navalny’s current situation is a procedural matter for the court, not an issue for the government.

More than a dozen Western diplomats attended Tuesday’s court hearing, and Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova charged that their presence was part of efforts by the West to contain Russia, adding that it could be an attempt to exert “psychological pressure” on the judge.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Russia is ready for dialogue about Navalny, but sternly warned that it wouldn’t take Western criticism into account.

“We are ready to patiently explain everything, but we aren’t going to react to mentor-style statements or take them into account,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.



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Russia Arrests 2,700 In Protests Demanding Navalny’s Release

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MOSCOW (AP) — Chanting slogans against President Vladimir Putin, thousands of people took to the streets Sunday across Russia’s vast expanse to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, keeping up the nationwide protests that have rattled the Kremlin. Over 2,700 were detained by police, according to a monitoring group.

Russian authorities mounted a massive effort to stem the tide of demonstrations after tens of thousands rallied across the country last weekend in the largest, most widespread show of discontent that Russia has seen in years. Yet despite threats of jail terms, warnings to social media groups and tight police cordons, the protests again engulfed many cities on Sunday.

The 44-year-old Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator who is Putin’s best-known critic, was arrested on Jan. 17 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 accusations. He was arrested for allegedly violating his parole conditions by not reporting for meetings with law enforcement when he was recuperating in Germany.

The United States urged Russia to release Navalny and criticized the crackdown on protests.

“The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter.

On Sunday, police detained more than 2,700 people at protests held in cities across Russia’s 11 time zones, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors political arrests.

In Moscow, authorities introduced unprecedented security measures in the city center, closing subway stations near the Kremlin, cutting bus traffic and ordering restaurants and stores to stay closed.

Police officers detain a man during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, on S



Police officers detain a man during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. Thousands of people took to the streets Sunday across Russia to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, keeping up the wave of nationwide protests that have rattled the Kremlin. Hundreds were detained by police. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Navalny’s team initially called for Sunday’s protest to be held on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, home to the main headquarters of the Federal Security Service, which Navalny claims was responsible for his poisoning. Facing police cordons around the square, the protest shifted to other central squares and streets.

Police were randomly picking up people and putting them into police buses, but thousands of protesters marched across the city center, chanting “Putin, resign!” and Putin, thief!” a reference to an opulent Black Sea estate reportedly built for the Russian leader that was featured in a widely popular video released by Navalny’s team.

At some point, crowds of demonstrators walked toward the Matrosskaya Tishina prison where Navalny is being held, but met phalanxes of riot police who pushed the march back and chased protesters through courtyards, detaining scores. Still, protesters marched around the Russian capital for hours, zigzagging around police cordons.

Nearly 700 people were detained in Moscow, including Navalny’s wife, Yulia, who joined the protest.

The city of Novosibirsk in eastern Siberia saw one of the biggest rallies, with several thousand people marching across the city. Over 100 protesters were detained.

An estimated 2,000 marched across Russia’s second-largest city of St. Petersburg, and occasional scuffles erupted as some demonstrators pushed back police who tried to make detentions. Nearly 400 were arrested.

In the far eastern port of Vladivostok, at least 120 people were detained after protesters danced on the ice and rallied in the city center.

As part of a multipronged effort by authorities to block the protests, courts have jailed Navalny’s associates and activists across the country over the past week. His brother Oleg, top aide Lyubov Sobol and three other people were put Friday under a two-month house arrest on charges of allegedly violating coronavirus restrictions during last weekend’s protests.

Prosecutors also demanded that social media platforms block calls to join the protests.

The Interior Ministry has issued stern warnings to the public not to join the protests, saying participants could be charged with taking part in mass riots, which carries a prison sentence of up to eight years. Those engaging in violence against police could face up to 15 years.

Nearly 4,000 people were reportedly detained at demonstrations on Jan. 23 calling for Navalny’s release took place in more than 100 Russian cities, and some were given fines and jail terms. About 20 were accused of assaulting police and faced criminal charges.

Just after Navalny’s arrest, his team released a two-hour video on his YouTube channel about the Black Sea residence purportedly built for Putin. The video has been viewed over 100 million times, helping fuel discontent and inspiring a stream of sarcastic jokes on the internet amid an economic downturn.

Russia has seen extensive corruption during Putin’s time in office while poverty has remained widespread.

Demonstrators in Moscow chanted “Aqua discotheque!,” a reference to one of the fancy amenities at the residence that also features a casino and a hookah lounge equipped for watching pole dances.

Putin says that neither he nor any of his close relatives own the property. On Saturday, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, a longtime Putin confidant and his occasional judo sparring partner, claimed that he himself owned the property.

Navalny fell into a coma on Aug. 20 while on a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow. He was transferred 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 the Novichok nerve agent. Russian authorities have refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, claiming a lack of evidence that he was poisoned.

Navalny was arrested immediately when he returned to Russia earlier this month and jailed for 30 days on the request of Russia’s prison service, which alleged he had violated the probation of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction that he has rejected as political revenge.

On Thursday, a Moscow court rejected Navalny’s appeal to be released, and another hearing next week could turn his 3 1/2-year suspended sentence into one he must serve in prison.



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Russian Court Rejects Putin Critic Alexei Navalny’s Appeal; Allies Detained

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Dmitry Peskov

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian court on Thursday rejected opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s appeal against his arrest while authorities detained several of his allies and issued warnings to social media companies after tens of thousands swarmed the streets in over 100 Russian cities last weekend demanding his release.

Speaking to court via video link from jail, Navalny denounced criminal proceedings against him as part of the government’s efforts to intimidate the opposition.

“You won’t succeed in scaring tens of millions of people who have been robbed by that government,” he said.

The 44-year-old Navalny, the most well-known critic of President Vladimir Putin’s government, was arrested Jan. 17 upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusations.

Navalny was arrested for 30 days on request by Russia’s penitentiary service, which charged that he had violated probation terms from a suspended sentence on a 2014 money-laundering conviction, which he rejected as politically driven. He now also faces accusations in two separate criminal probes.

The Moscow Region Court on Thursday rejected his appeal against the arrest.

During the court hearing, Navalny’s defense argued that he was undergoing rehabilitation in Germany and so was unable to register with authorities as required by probation terms during the period. His lawyers also contested his arrest, charging that due process was repeatedly violated.

The detention of Navalny’s brother Oleg, his top ally Lyubov Sobol, Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva from the Navalny-backed Alliance of Doctors and Maria Alyokhina from the Pussy Riot punk collective comes as authorities try to stem another wave of protests set for Sunday.

All four were detained for 48 hours as part of a criminal probe into alleged violations of coronavirus regulations during the weekend’s protests.

The overnight detentions of Navalny’s allies came after more than a dozen searches of apartments and offices of his family, associates and supporters in connection to the ongoing probe into violations of coronavirus restrictions during the weekend protests. Those sites included Navalny’s apartment, where police detained his brother, and a rented apartment where Navalny’s wife, Yulia, has been living.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the searches and detentions were a legitimate part of police efforts to investigate the alleged violations during Saturday’s rallies.

“Law enforcement agencies are doing their job,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “There were numerous violations of Russian laws, and law enforcement agencies are at work.”

Russian prosecutors on Thursday also issued warnings to Facebook, Google, Twitter, TikTok and Russian social networks demanding that they block calls for more protests.

“The state doesn’t want the social networks to become a platform for promoting such illegal actions,” Peskov said.

Asked if their refusal to remove such content could prompt Russian authorities to block them, Peskov responded it would be up to relevant government agencies to consider a response.

“All pros and cons will be weighed and, if necessary, measures envisaged by the law will be taken,” he said.

Earlier this week, Russia’s state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor said it would fine Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and two Russian social networks for their failure to block calls on minors to join Saturday’s protests.

Also Thursday, Russia’s Investigative Committee said it opened a criminal probe against Navalny’s top strategist Leonid Volkov, accusing him of encouraging minors to participate in unauthorized rallies. Volkov, who currently stays abroad, rejected the charges.

In a challenge to Putin two days after Navalny’s arrest, his organization released an extensive video report on a palatial seaside compound allegedly built for the president. It has been viewed over 98 million times, further stoking discontent.

Demonstrations calling for Navalny’s release took place in more than 100 cities across the nation last Saturday, a strong show of rising anger toward the Kremlin. Nearly 4,000 people were reported detained at those protests and some were handed fines and jail terms.

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 the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities have refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned.

Navalny’s arrest and the harsh police actions at the protests have brought wide criticism from the West and calls for his release.

 



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In Phone Call, Biden, Putin Discuss Extending Nuclear Arms Treaty

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Emma Farge

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Russia and the United States have struck a deal to extend the New START nuclear arms control treaty, the Kremlin said on Tuesday, a move that preserves the last major pact of its kind between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.

The White House did not immediately confirm the Kremlin’s announcement but said President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed the issue by telephone and agreed that their teams work urgently to complete the extension by Feb. 5, when the treaty expires.

Signed in 2010, the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is a cornerstone of global arms control.

It limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the United States and Russia to 1,550 each as well as the number of land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers that deliver them.

The Kremlin declared the breakthrough, which was widely anticipated, in a statement announcing that Putin and Biden had spoken for the first time since Biden took office on Jan. 20.

Moscow and Washington had failed to agree an extension under former U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration had wanted to attach conditions to a renewal that Moscow rejected.

The Kremlin said Putin and Biden “expressed satisfaction” that diplomatic notes between the two nations had been exchanged earlier on Tuesday confirming the pact would be extended and that procedures required for the pact to come into force before it expires would be completed in the coming days.

The White House, in its description of the call, did not say that an agreement had been reached or that diplomatic notes had been exchanged, though its tone was upbeat.

“They discussed both countries’ willingness to extend New START for five years, agreeing to have their teams work urgently to complete the extension by Feb. 5,” the White House said. “They also agreed to explore strategic stability discussions on a range of arms control and emerging security issues.”

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the plan was for the exchange of notes to occur on Tuesday.

Asked why Washington had not explicitly said an agreement had been reached, a second U.S. official, also on condition of anonymity, said some steps were needed, including approval by the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. The treaty itself does not require legislative approval for an extension.

The White House said last week Biden would seek a five-year extension.

In its statement, the Kremlin said that Putin had told Biden a normalization of relations between Moscow and Washington would be in both countries’ interest.

It said the two leaders had also discussed the U.S. decision during Trump’s administration to exit the Open Skies treaty. Putin and Biden also talked about Iran’s nuclear program and the conflict in Ukraine.

The White House stressed that it will raise matters where it disagrees with Russia, and said Biden had reaffirmed the United States’ “firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty”.

Biden had raised “other matters of concern” including the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, the cyber hack blamed on Russia that used U.S. tech company SolarWinds Corp as a springboard to penetrate federal government networks, and reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies,” the White House statement said.

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov, Maria Kiselyova, Polina Devitt and Darya Korsunskaya; Additional reporting by Emma Farge and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and by Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Andrew Osborn, Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool)



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Biden Administration Announces Restoration Of Relations With Palestinians

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Arab League

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration announced Tuesday it was restoring relations with the Palestinians and renewing aid to Palestinian refugees, a reversal of the Trump administration’s cutoff and a key element of its new support for a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Acting U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills made the announcement of Biden’s approach to a high-level virtual Security Council meeting, saying the new U.S. administration believes this “remains the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state while upholding the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for a state of their own and to live with dignity and security.”

President Donald Trump’s administration provided unprecedented support to Israel, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, slashing financial assistance for the Palestinians and reversing course on the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians.

Israel captured east Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 war. The international community considers both areas to be occupied territory, and the Palestinians seek them as parts of a future independent state. Israel has built a far-flung network of settlements that house nearly 700,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem since their capture in 1967.

The peace plan unveiled by Trump a year ago envisions a disjointed Palestinian state that turns over key parts of the West Bank to Israel, siding with Israel on key contentious issues including borders and the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements. It was vehemently rejected by the Palestinians.

Mills made clear the Biden administration’s more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Under the new administration, the policy of the United States will be to support a mutually agreed two-state solution, one in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state,” he said.

Mills said peace can’t be imposed on either side and stressed that progress and an ultimate solution require the participation and agreement of Israelis and Palestinians.

“In order to advance these objectives, the Biden administration will restore credible U.S. engagement with Palestinians as well as Israelis,” he said.

“This will involve renewing U.S. relations with the Palestinian leadership and Palestinian people,” Mills said.

“President Biden has been clear that he intends to restore U.S. assistance programs that support economic development programs and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people, and to take steps to reopen diplomatic relations that were closed by the last U.S. administration,.” Mills said.

Trump cut off funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency known as UNRWA, which was established to aid the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948. It provides education, health care, food and other assistance to some 5.5 million refugees and their descendants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The U.S. was UNRWA’s major donor and the loss of funds has created a financial crisis for the agency.

The Trump administration closed the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington in September 2018, effectively shutting down the Palestinians’ diplomatic mission to the United States.

Mills said the United States hopes to start working to slowly build confidence on both sides to create an environment to reach a two-state solution.

To pursue this goal, Mills said, “the United States will urge Israel’s government and the Palestinians to avoid unilateral steps that make a two-state solution more difficult, such as annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, incitement to violence, and providing compensation for individuals in prison for acts of terrorism.”

Israel has accused the Palestinians of inciting violence and has vehemently objected to the Palestinian Authority paying families of those imprisoned for attacking or killing Israelis.

Mills stressed that “the U.S. will maintain its steadfast support for Israel” ― opposing one-sided resolutions and other actions in international bodies that unfairly single out Israel and promoting Israel’s standing and participation at the U.N. and other international organizations.

The Biden administration welcomes the recent normalization of relations between Israel and a number of Arab nations and will urge other countries to establish ties, Mills said.

“Yet, we recognize that Arab-Israeli normalization is not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace,” he said.

Mills stressed that the fraught state of Israeli-Palestinian politics, and the fact that trust between the two sides “is at a nadir,” don’t relieve U.N. member nations “of the responsibility of trying to preserve the viability of a two-state solution.”

Before Mills spoke, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki sharply criticized the Trump administration for using “the United States’ might and influence to support Israel’s unlawful efforts to entrench its occupation and control” and reiterated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ hopes “for the resumption of relations and positive engagement.”

“Now is the time to heal and repair the damage left by the previous U.S. administration,” he said. “We look forward to the reversal of the unlawful and hostile measures undertaken by the Trump administration and to working together for peace.”

Malki called for revival of the Quartet of Mideast mediators ― the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia ― and reiterated Abbas’ call for an international peace conference “that can signal a turning point in this conflict.” He also expressed hope that “the U.S. will play an important role in multilateral efforts for peace in the Middle East.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow is convinced that the Quartet, working closely with both sides and Arab states, “can play a very, very effective role.”

In support of Abbas’ call for an international conference, Lavrov proposed holding a ministerial meeting this spring or summer with the Quartet and Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as well as Saudi Arabia to analyze the current situation and assist “in launching a dialogue” between Israeli’s and Palestinians.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said “Palestinians suffered from unprecedented pressure from the former U.S. administration” and said the organization’s 22 members look forward to Biden correcting Trump’s actions and working with international and regional parties to relaunch “a serious peace process.”

But Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan told the council that instead of focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it should focus on Iran, which “does not try to hide its intention of destroying the world’s only Jewish state.”

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he suggested that the council discuss what he called “the real obstacles to peace: Palestinian incitement and culture of hate.”

Israel remains willing to make peace “when there is a willing partner,” Erdan said, accusing Abbas of inciting violence, and saying he should come to the negotiating table “without making outrageous demands and not call for another pointless international conference … (which) is just a distraction.”



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Poisoned Putin Critic Navalny Jailed For 30 Days In Russia, Spokeswoman Says

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Dominic Raab

MOSCOW (AP) — A judge on Monday ordered Alexei Navalny to be remanded in custody for 30 days, the Russian opposition leader’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter.

The ruling concluded an hours-long court hearing set up at a police precinct where the politician was held since his arrest at a Moscow airport Sunday.

Navalny flew to Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. He was detained at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport after flying in Sunday evening from Berlin, where he was treated following the poisoning in August.

Navalny’s arrest prompted a wave of criticism from U.S. and European officials, adding to existing tension between Russia and West.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that Navalny had returned of his own volition and said “it is completely incomprehensible that he was detained by Russian authorities immediately after his arrival.”

“Russia is bound by its own constitution and by international commitments to the principle of the rule of law and the protection of civil rights,” Maas added. “These principles must of course also be applied to Alexei Navalny. He should be released immediately.”

The politician’s allies said Monday he was being held at a police precinct outside Moscow and has been refused access to his lawyer. The court hearing into whether Navalny should remain in custody was hastily set up at the precinct itself, and the politician’s lawyers said they were notified minutes before.

“It is impossible what is happening over here,” Navalny said in video from the improvised court room, posted on his page in the messaging app Telegram. “It is lawlessness of the highest degree.”

Calls for Navalny’s immediate release have come from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and top officials of other EU nations.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national security adviser called on Russian authorities to free Navalny. “Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” Jake Sullivan tweeted.

The outgoing U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said the U.S. “strongly condemns” the decision to arrest Navalny.

Nevertheless, the judge ordered that Navalny be remanded in custody until Feb. 15, Yarmysh said on Twitter. Navalny’s lawyer Vadim Kobzev told the Interfax news agency that the defense plans to appeal the ruling.

Navalny’s detention was widely expected because Russia’s prisons service said he had violated probation terms from a suspended sentence on a 2014 money-laundering conviction.

The service said it would seek to have Navalny serve his 3½-year sentence behind bars.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday the stream of Western reactions to Navalny’s arrest reflects an attempt “to divert attention from the crisis of the Western model of development.”

“Navalny’s case has received a foreign policy dimension artificially and without any foundation,” Lavrov said, arguing that his detention was a prerogative of Russian law enforcement agencies that explained their action. “It’s a matter of observing the law,” he added.

Navalny, 44, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent and determined foe, brushed off concerns about arrest as he boarded his flight in Berlin on Sunday.

“It’s impossible. I’m an innocent man,” he 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. Russia refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, citing a lack of evidence that Navalny was poisoned, and officials have challenged Germany to provide proof of the poisoning

Last month, Navalny released the recording of a phone call he said he made to a man he alleged was a 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.

Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side for a decade, unusually durable in an opposition movement often demoralized by repression. Russian authorities have launched multiple criminal investigations against him, and he has been tried and convicted in two separate criminal cases widely seen as politically motivated.

In December 2014, Navalny was convicted on charges of fraud and money-laundering and received a 3½-year suspended sentence, which he denounced as politically motivated and the European Court of Human Rights found “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” three years later.

The sentence carried a probation period that was due to expire in December 2020. Authorities said the politician was subject to regular in-person checks with law enforcement officers as one of the conditions of his probation.

Russia’s prison service first accused Navalny of not appearing for these checks on Dec. 28 — two days before the probation period was supposed to end.

Navalny and his team rejected the accusations and said the move was an attempt by the Kremlin to keep the politician from coming back to Russia.

Three days before his return to Moscow, the prison service alleged in a statement that Navalny repeatedly failed to appear for the checks, including when he was convalescing in Germany, and said it was “obligated to undertake actions to detain” the politician.

Navalny had repeatedly said he would come back to Russia despite threats of arrest, saying he didn’t leave the country by choice, but rather “ended up in Germany in an intensive care box,” and said he was still dedicated to his cause.

“I will go back to Russia, I will continue my work. No other possibility has ever been considered or is being considered,” Navalny said in October.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.



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