Russian dissident Alexei Navalny appeared by video in a Moscow court on Thursday to appeal a libel case against him.
Navalny was difficult to recognize, shaven-headed and skeletal after losing 50 pounds in a hunger strike, but he gave a fiery speech to the court in an unsuccessful effort to get the charges dismissed.
Shortly after he returned to Moscow from Germany and was arrested on dubious parole violation charges, Navalny was fined roughly $11,500 for allegedly “defaming” a 95-year-old World War II veteran named Igor Artemenko who appeared in a state television commercial last June, promoting a package of constitutional amendments that allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to effectively remain in office until 2036, at which point he would be 84 years old and would have ruled Russia for 34 years of his life.
Navalny used Twitter to call the people who appeared in the TV advertisement “traitors,” the “shame of the country,” and “corrupt stooges” of the Putin regime. Prosecutors charged him with “denigrating the honor and dignity” of a World War II veteran.
When the elderly Artemenko became ill during the libel trial in February, Navalny suggested he was mentally incapable of following the trial. The prosecution blamed Navalny’s criticism for making Artemenko sick.
“This trial was conceived as some kind of PR trial, because the Kremlin needs headlines, ‘Navalny slandered a veteran,’” Navalny told the court in February.
“I find it really disgusting and unbearable. You’ve been using him as a puppet,” he said of how the prosecution was handling Artemenko. “You’re making a mockery of a 95-year-old man.”
Navalny complained he was unable to properly question Artemenko during the proceedings and accused the prosecutors of manipulating his testimony. He denounced Artemenko’s family for essentially selling the old man to the Putin regime so a spurious libel case could be concocted.
In his first public appearance since declaring a hunger strike on March 31, addressing the Moscow court by video from the penal colony where he is imprisoned, Navalny looked like a shadow of his former self but was no less sarcastic and defiant.
“I want to say, my dear court, that your king is naked, and more than one little boy is screaming about it, already millions of people are screaming about it,” Navalny said, evoking the Emperor’s New Clothes parable to describe Putin.
“Twenty years of incompetent governing have led to the following result. There is a crown slipping from his ears. There are lies on TV. We have spent trillions of rubles and our country continues to slide into poverty. Your naked king wants to rule until the end, he doesn’t care about the country, he is clung to power and wants to rule indefinitely,” Navalny declared.
“You are all traitors,” he told the court. “You and the naked king are implementing a plan to seize Russia, and the Russians should be turned into slaves. Their wealth will be taken away from them, they will be deprived of any prospects. You have implemented that plan.”
Navalny also joked about his own appearance – “I looked in the mirror. Of course, I’m just a dreadful skeleton” – and at one point asked his wife Yulia to face the camera so he could see her again.
The court on Thursday rejected Navalny’s motion to dismiss the libel judgment against him. His lawyer Olga Mikhailova said she would file an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights over the “number of violations” committed by the prosecution.
The rejection of Navalny’s appeal was one of a string of court decisions and official actions that were apparently intended to demolish Navalny’s anti-corruption organization.
Another court in northern Russia on Thursday sentenced Navalny ally Andrei Brorovikov to two and a half years in prison on “pornography” charges for posting a music video from German metal band Rammstein on social media.
Borovikov shared the video in 2014, but he was not charged with an offense until last year, so critics believe the charges were cooked up to punish him for working as Navalny’s campaign manager. The Rammstein video is for a song called “Pussy,” not about cats.
On Friday, Russia’s state financial watchdog added Navalny’s network of regional headquarters to its terrorism watch list, which could be a prelude to seizing the organization’s financial assets and formally outlawing it.
“Russia’s crackdown on the opposition has picked up speed since Navalny’s arrest in January, with the Kremlin targeting his supporters, journalists covering protests in his support, and even lawyers who are involved in the case. Fearing arrest, many of Navalny’s top aides have fled the country,” the UK Guardian noted, pointing to the case of Ivan Pavlov, a Navalny lawyer who was arrested on Friday for “allegedly divulging information about a preliminary investigation.”