The largest human rights court in Europe has ordered Russia to release imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a ruling that Russian authorities swiftly rejected on Wednesday as they seek to isolate the Kremlin’s most prominent enemy.
The decision of the European Court of Human Rights had demanded Russia to release Navalny immediately and warned that failure to do so would constitute a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Russian Minister of Justice rejected the court’s request, describing it as “baseless and illegal,” and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced it as part of Western interference in the country’s internal affairs.
Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption investigator and a leading critic of President Vladimir Putin, was arrested last month upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from the nerve gas poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. The Russian authorities have rejected this accusation.
Earlier this month, a Moscow court sentenced Navalny to two years and eight months in prison for violating the terms of his probation while recovering in Germany. The ruling stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny rejected as fabricated and which the European Court ruled unlawful.
In its ruling issued on Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights referred to Rule 39 of its regulations and obligated the Russian government to release Navalny, citing “the nature and extent of the risk to the applicant’s life.”
“This measure will be implemented with immediate effect,” the Strasbourg-based court said in a statement.
The court indicated that Navalny challenged the Russian authorities’ argument that they had taken adequate measures to protect his life and well-being in custody after the nerve agent attack.
Russian Justice Minister Konstantin Chuichenko rejected the court’s ruling, describing it as a “clear and crude interference” in the Russian judicial system.
“This request is baseless and illegal, because it does not refer to a single fact or legal rule that would allow the court to issue such a ruling,” Chuichenko said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies. This request cannot be fulfilled because there is no legal reason to release this person from custody under Russian law. Well aware of this, it is clear that the European judges have taken a political decision that can only exacerbate the restoration of constructive relations with the institutions of the Council of Europe.
In the past, Moscow complied with rulings of the European Court of Human Rights to grant compensation to Russian citizens who objected to rulings in Russian courts, but it has never faced a request from the European Court for the convict’s release.
In a reflection of its deep discomfort with the rulings of the European Court, Russia last year adopted a constitutional amendment declaring the primacy of national legislation over international law. Russian authorities may now use this clause to reject the European Court of Human Rights ruling.
Mikhail Yemelyanov, deputy head of the legal affairs committee in the Kremlin-controlled House of Representatives, referred to the constitutional change, noting that it gives Russia the right to ignore the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, according to the Interfax news agency.
But Navalny’s chief strategist, Leonid Volkov, argued that Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe obliged it to implement the court’s ruling. He warned on Facebook that the country risked losing its membership in the continent’s largest human rights organization if it did not comply.
Navalny’s arrest and imprisonment sparked a wave of protests across Russia. The authorities responded with a sweeping crackdown, arresting around 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or sentenced to prison terms ranging from seven to 15 days.
Russia has rejected Western criticism of Navalny’s arrest and the suppression of the demonstrations, describing them as interference in its internal affairs.
In televised statements, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, denounced the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, describing it as a blow to international law and “part of a campaign to exert pressure on our country and interfere in the internal affairs of our country.”
A court hearing is scheduled for Navalny’s appeal against Saturday’s ruling.
He also faced court proceedings in a separate case for defaming a World War II veteran. Navalny, who described the 94-year-old warrior and other people featured in a pro-Kremlin video as “corrupt agents”, “unscrupulous people” and “traitors,” dismissed the defamation charges as part of official efforts to belittle him.
To his usual sarcastic banter, Navalny compared his conditions in the Matroskaya Tishina high-security prison in Moscow to the isolation of a space traveler.
“People in uniform who come to me say only a few sentences, and a light appears pointing to a working video camera on their chests – they look just like robots,” he said in statements posted on Instagram. “And as in a movie about space travel, the ship’s command center is calling me. A voice from the intercom says,“ 3-0-2, get ready for health treatment. ”And I would answer,“ Well, just give me 10 minutes to finish tea. ”