Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said he was facing new extremism and terrorism charges that could land him in prison for life as authorities set the stage for a new trial against the Kremlin’s leading critic.
Mr Navalny said by video-link from prison during the hearing that the extremism charges that he rejected as “absurd” could see him in prison for 30 years.
He noted that an investigator had told him that he would also face a separate military court trial on terrorism charges that could potentially carry a life sentence, adding sardonically that the charges implied that “I’m conducting terror attacks while sitting in prison”.
His top ally said that investigators were trying to link the terrorism charges against Mr Navalny to a bombing that killed a well-known Russian military blogger earlier this month.
He initially received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for a parole violation. Last year, he was sentenced to a nine-year term for fraud and contempt of court. He is currently serving time at a maximum security prison 150 miles (250km) east of Moscow.
The new charges against Mr Navalny relate to the activities of his anti-corruption foundation and statements by his top associates.
His ally, Leonid Volkov, said the accusations retroactively criminalised all the activities of Mr Navalny’s foundation since its creation in 2011 and carried a potential punishment of up to 35 years in prison.
Mr Navalny’s associate, Ivan Zhdanov, said on Wednesday that investigators were revising the charges to link them to a bombing that killed Russian military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky at a St Petersburg cafe earlier this month.
The authorities described Darya Trepova, a 26-year-old St Petersburg resident who was seen on video presenting Mr Tatarsky with a statuette moments before the blast, as an active supporter of Mr Navalny.
The new charges come as Russian authorities conduct an intensifying crackdown on dissent amid the fighting in Ukraine, which Mr Navalny has harshly criticised.
Wednesday’s hearing at Moscow’s Basmanny District Court was held to discuss preparations for Mr Navalny’s trial on the extremism charges.
Mr Navalny asked for more time to study the 196 case files.
The judge closed the session minutes after it opened, ruling that it should be held behind closed doors, because the case involved sensitive information.
“It’s an attempt to unlawfully restrict my ability to study the materials of the case and prevent anyone from knowing about it,” Mr Navalny said before public access to the hearing ended.
Mr Navalny, who is Russian president Vladimir Putin’s most prominent foe, has rejected the charges as a political vendetta and an attempt by Russian authorities to keep him out of politics for as long as possible.
His associates and supporters have become increasingly worried about his failing health. Earlier this month, they said Mr Navalny had fallen ill with acute stomach pains and suspected that he was being slowly poisoned.
While imprisoned, Mr Navalny has spent months in a tiny one-person cell, also called a “punishment cell”, for purported disciplinary violations such as an alleged failure to properly button his prison robe, properly introduce himself to a guard or to wash his face at a specified time.
His supporters have accused prison authorities of failing to provide him with proper medical assistance, using blindingly bright light in his cell and placing him next to a mentally unstable person.
Mr Navalny said on Tuesday that he had completed a 15-day stay in the punishment cell and was immediately ordered to spend another 15 days there.
The Russian authorities have ramped up their crackdown on dissent after Mr Putin sent troops into Ukraine under new legislation that has effectively criminalised any public criticism of Moscow’s military action and independent reporting on the conflict.