Despite looking like a skeletal version of his former self, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny came out swinging in a court hearing Thursday.
He appeared shaven-headed, via videolink, from the penal colony where he is serving two and half years. His appeal in a libel case – something separate from what he is doing jail time for – was turned down. Navalny has been fined the equivalent of $11,500 for defaming a World War II veteran.
The case involves a state TV spot where the 95-year-old veteran appears alongside others urging Russians to vote to change the constitution in ways that would allow Vladimir Putin to hold office until 2036. Navalny called them “corrupt stooges” and “traitors.”
His detractors seized upon those statements to label Navalny unpatriotic. But in Thursday’s hearing he swore that he is in fact a patriot, trying to protect his country from a entire caste of traitors. And he warned, “No matter how you try to steal victories, you will not succeed.”
He accused the government of turning Russians into “slaves.”
Fresh off a hunger strike that has made him shed 50 pounds, the 44-year-old Navalny showed no sign of weakness when it came to his political fight. He used his platform to rail colorfully and at length, despite the judge’s attempts to shut him up, against Putin, whom he referred to again as “thieving.”
“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,” he said. “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.”
In another hearing, proceedings were underway to formally label his Anti-Corruption Foundation an extremist organization. The foundation announced on Thursday that it is closing all operations, which are mostly crowdfunded, so that nobody gets thrown in jail.
Navalny’s top aide Leonid Volkov said, “In short, Navalny’s offices don’t exist anymore. To me, as to anybody else — these are not just words. This is a punch in the gut, a punch in the heart. I have managed Navalny’s offices many years, I have built them at the beginning, I have given [these offices] four years of my life and hard work.”
He went on, “The networks had victories: We cancelled corrupt public procurement orders, secured the resignation of thieves and crooks, won elections, protected parks from development projects and helpted local activists.”
Meanwhile, protests for Navalny’s freedom earlier this month took place notably without images of people getting roughed up by police. Some critics said facial recognition technology appeared to have been used to identify protesters and get them after the fact.
Police went to houses and took statements, and reportedly a number of people were arrested. This, critics said, may be part of an effort to change the image of Russian law enforcement in the eyes of the world; may be a result of jails being overwhelmed; or simply may be a new intimidation tactic.
“They’re identifying people with facial recognition systems. Selective visits to random participants have an even grimmer and more demoralizing effect on the public than roughing up and arresting people at a protest,” human rights lawyer Dmitry Piskunov told the Meduza news service.
Navalny may have appeared verbally vigorous on Thursday but there are still concerns for his health, taking into account also that he was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent back in August. He is slowly beginning to eat after his recent nearly monthlong hunger strike: he shared during the hearing that he is up to four spoons of porridge. He said he has asked for carrots but so far that wish has not been granted.
He infused a bit of romance, as he often does, into the grim setting. Asking his wife “Yuliashka” to face the video camera so he could see her, he added he was glad to lay eyes on her. The two have a strong bond, which has also won the hearts of many supporters.
Navalny, his head shaven, said he was taken to a bathhouse to look “decent” for the hearing.
“I looked in the mirror. Of course, I’m just a dreadful skeleton,” he said, adding that he now weighs what he did as a school boy.