• AFP-Jiji


EU foreign ministers are expected to give the go-ahead Monday to sanctions on Russia over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and a crackdown on protests.

The top diplomats from the 27-nation bloc meet in Brussels for talks that will also include a wide-ranging videoconference with new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The move to target the Kremlin comes two weeks after EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was caught in a diplomatic ambush in Moscow that enraged member states.

Capitals are eyeing using the EU's new human rights sanctions regime for the first time to hit individuals responsible for the clampdown with asset freezes and visa bans, diplomats said.

"I expect a political agreement to be reached," a senior European diplomat said.

"Then experts from the member states should work on the names."

The mood toward Moscow has hardened in the wake of Borrell's disastrous trip to Russia, during which Moscow announced it was expelling three European diplomats and rebuffed talk of cooperation.

"They rejected out of hand any dialogue that was proposed," a senior EU official said.

The EU has already hit Russia with waves of sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Moscow's fueling of the war in Ukraine.

The bloc in October slapped six officials on a blacklist over the poisoning of Navalny with Novichok, a nerve agent.

President Vladimir Putin's most prominent domestic critic was this month jailed for almost three years after returning to Russia following treatment in Germany.

His sentencing sparked nationwide protests that saw baton-wielding security forces detain thousands.

Two of Navalny's closest allies are set to meet with a dozen EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Sunday to push for sanctions targeting high-profile oligarchs they accuse of funding Putin's regime.

But diplomats say any measures have to be tied directly to abuses and need to stand up to challenges in court.

While European countries appear to be readying a common front against the Kremlin, they are also keen to allow for cooperation on efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal after former U.S. leader Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.

The EU is currently looking to broker a meeting between Washington, Tehran and other signatories — including Moscow — to try to work out how to salvage the 2015 accord.

The repression in Russia is not the only rights issue set to be addressed at the meeting.

A response to a military coup and increasingly lethal crackdown on protesters in Myanmar is to feature on the agenda, as are measures over disputed elections last year in Venezuela.

The senior EU official said that ministers were expected to move toward sanctioning Myanmar military officers and placing Venezuelan officials on a blacklist.

The focus will pivot to cooperation when America's top diplomat Blinken joins for his first full talks with the bloc, with all sides looking to put the tensions of the Trump era behind them.

The discussion looks likely to range from a joint approach to common adversaries like Russia and China to the pressing issue of the Iran deal.

All 27 ministers are expected to sound out Blinken on what to expect from U.S. President Joe Biden, with broader issues of tackling the climate crisis and pandemic also in the mix.

Biden declared the "transatlantic alliance is back" Friday in a speech seeking to reestablish the U.S. as leader of the West against what he called a global assault on democracy.

On Saturday, a Moscow judge upheld a ruling to jail top Navalny, as he lost two court cases in one day and was headed for more than two years in a penal colony.

Another court later Saturday convicted President Vladimir Putin's most prominent opponent on defamation charges — part of a slew of cases he has faced since returning from Germany last month after a poison attack he blames on the Kremlin.

In the first hearing on Saturday, Judge Dmitry Balashov dismissed Navalny's appeal of a decision to imprison him for violating the terms of a suspended sentence on embezzlement charges he says were politically motivated.

Navalny, 44, was ordered on Feb. 2 to serve two years and eight months in a penal colony for breaching his parole terms while he was recovering in Germany.

The anti-corruption campaigner appeared in court inside a glass cage for defendants, wearing a plaid shirt, smiling and flashing the V for victory symbol.

In a closing address that often broke from his usual sarcastic tone, Navalny referenced the Bible and said he had no doubts about his decision to return to Russia.

"The Bible says: 'Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness, for they will be satisfied,'" he told the court.

"I have no regrets that I am back."

He also quoted from a character in the Harry Potter books, saying it was "important not to feel alone" because that was what the series' villain Voldemort wanted.

He described the legal process to jail him as "absurd" and called on Russians to take action to make the country a better place.

"Russia should be not only free, but also happy," Navalny said.

Prosecutors said Navalny had acted as if he was above the law and had "an exclusive right to do as he pleases."

The judge decided to count six weeks Navalny was under house arrest as part of the time served, so he will now be imprisoned for just over two-and-a-half years.

Hours later another judge convicted Navalny of defamation for calling a World War II veteran a "traitor" for appearing in a pro-Kremlin video.

Judge Vera Akimova ordered him to pay a fine of 850,000 rubles ($11,500).

Before the judge began reading the verdict, Navalny made jokes from inside his glass box.

"Why are you so sad?" he told reporters, adding he was trying to make ice cream in jail and had already made pickled cucumbers.

One of his two lawyers, Olga Mikhailova, said Navalny was not expected to be sent off to a penal colony before his defense team received a copy of the verdict.

The 94-year-old veteran appeared in a video that Navalny derided for promoting constitutional reforms, passed last year, that allow Putin to stay in power until 2036.

Navalny accused Russian authorities of using the veteran as a "puppet" to try to discredit him.

"One day of this trial costs much more than the veteran got in the last four years from the very state that dares to claim it cares about veterans," he said.

Supporters of the opposition politician say the cases are a pretext to silence his corruption exposes and quash his political ambitions.

More than 10,000 people were detained at the protests, with many of Navalny's allies now under house arrest, and his team has said there will be a break in demonstrations until later this year.

Europe's rights court ruled this week that Russia must immediately release Navalny, a motion swiftly brushed aside by the justice ministry.

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