MOSCOW – A Moscow court on Friday ordered Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny to be placed under house arrest and banned from using the Internet, a move he said was aimed at thwarting his fight against top-level corruption.
The order came after a request from investigators probing an alleged embezzlement case, which Navalny’s supporters say is yet another attempt to remove one of the most dangerous foes of President Vladimir Putin from the political scene.
Navalny — who was last year given a suspended five-year sentence in a separate timber embezzlement case — faces charges in this case along with his brother Oleg of stealing and laundering a total of 51 million rubles ($1.4 million) from cosmetics company Yves Rocher and a Russian firm.
Investigators had already made Navalny sign a pledge not to leave Moscow but asked for his restrictions to be stepped up to house arrest, arguing he had repeatedly violated the restrictions imposed on him.
As well as being unable to leave his home in the Moscow region, the tough new restrictions imposed by a district court mean that Navalny will only be able to talk to relatives, investigators and his defense.
“He will only be allowed to leave his home with the permission of investigators,” his spokeswoman, Anna Veduta, wrote on Twitter.
Crucially for a figure who has emerged as one of the main challengers Putin through a widely-followed blog and acerbic comments on Twitter, he will not be able to use the Internet.
Navalny will also not be able to send or receive letters or talk to the press. The term of the house arrest is until April 28 but it can then be extended.
In the last comments Navalny was allowed to make to the media by the court, he said the move was aimed at keeping him out of politics and halting the work of his anti-corruption watchdog.
“I am using this last chance to say that what has happened has just one aim — to restrict the possibility of me continuing anti-corruption investigations,” he said.
“All they (the investigators) are interested in is that I have a blog and make public political pronouncements,” he added.
The protest leader is serving a brief weeklong administrative detention sentence handed out this week for disobeying police orders at a demonstration over the jailing of a group of activists opposed to Putin.
The judge ordered that he was taken back into detention after the court hearing was over.
He is due to walk free from that term on March 3 but under the court ruling he will then immediately have to begin the period of house arrest.
By strange coincidence, Russia’s justice ministry on Friday registered the Progress Party, the nascent political party that Navalny leads.
“Registration of the Progress Party and house arrest,” Navalny wrote ironically on Twitter in what is likely to be his last tweet for some time.
Well known and popular among Internet-savvy middle class Muscovites, Navalny has so far struggled to make an impact in national politics.
However, he mounted a strong campaign in elections for Moscow mayor last year and had been expected until Friday’s verdict to play a role in local elections in the Russian capital this year. This will be impossible under house arrest.
“They want to isolate Navalny . . . but he is not going to disappear from the political scene,” said pro-opposition political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.
He said Navalny already has a strong team working for his anti-corruption watchdog as well as his wife, Yulia, who is quite capable of speaking in her husband’s name.