Russia expels EU diplomats for attending pro-Alexei Navalny rally

5 February 2021, 16:59

Protesters gathered outside a court in Moscow where Alexei Navalny is on trial
Protesters gathered outside a court in Moscow where Alexei Navalny is on trial. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

Russia will expel several EU diplomats for attending a protest in support of the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Russia's Foreign Ministry says it is expelling officials from Sweden, Poland and Germany for taking part in the demonstrations against the arrest and imprisonment of the activist.

The announcement came as the European Union's top diplomat told Russia's foreign minister that the treatment of Mr Navalny represents "a low point" in relations between Brussels and Moscow.

Read more: Navalny faces court accused of insulting Second World War veteran

The ministry said diplomats from Sweden and Poland in St Petersburg and from Germany in Moscow took part in "unlawful" rallies on January 23.

Tens of thousands of people across Russia took to the streets to protest against the arrest of Mr Navalny - the Kremlin's most prominent critic.

Alexei Navalny is being tried for multiple offences at a court in Moscow
Alexei Navalny is being tried for multiple offences at a court in Moscow. Picture: PA Images

The diplomats were declared "persona non grata" and were required to leave Russia "shortly", a statement said.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said relations between the bloc and Russia were "under a severe strain" following the move and described Mr Navalny's treatment as "a low point".

Mr Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption investigator and Russian President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic, was arrested on January 17 on returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.

Read more: Navalny urges Russians to free country from ‘bunch of thieves’

A Moscow court on Tuesday ruled that while in Germany, Mr Navalny violated probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction, and ordered him to serve two years and eight months in prison, prompting international outrage.

Mr Borrell said he had relayed his concerns to Russia's foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov over Mr Navalny's jailing and the arrests of thousands of people who demonstrated in his support.

The EU official said he also communicated the bloc's support for Mr Navalny's release and for an investigation of the August poisoning.

Russia and EU officials have held talks amid worsening relations over Alexei Navalny
Russia and EU officials have held talks amid worsening relations over Alexei Navalny. Picture: PA Images

Mr Lavrov again accused European officials of refusing to share evidence of the poisoning and repeated the Kremlin's intention to ignore Western criticism of the sentencing and police action against his supporters.

Mr Navalny was back in court on Friday for yet another trial - this time on the charge of defaming a Second World War veteran featured in a pro-Kremlin video that Mr Navalny criticised on social media last year.

A criminal investigation of the politician was opened after he condemned people featured in a video promoting constitutional amendments that allowed an extension to Mr Putin's rule, calling them "corrupt stooges", "people without conscience" and "traitors".

Russian authorities said his comments "denigrate (the) honour and dignity" of a war veteran featured in the video. If convicted, he faces a fine or community service.

He has denied the charge and refused to plead guilty on Friday, calling the trial a "PR process" aimed at discrediting him.

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