Navalny Faces Fraud Charges if He Returns to Russia After Poisoning

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Navalny Faces Fraud Charges if He Returns to Russia After Poisoning

Alexei Navalny told followers on Instagram that he tricked a Russian agent into revealing details of the poison attack that almost killed him.

Photo: Navalny instagram account/Associated Press

MOSCOW—Months after suffering a near-fatal nerve agent attack, Alexei Navalny is now facing new legal problems in Russia that have clouded the future of his opposition movement here and raised the stakes for his plans to return from Germany, where he has been recuperating.

Mr. Navalny and his supporters have denied Russian authorities’ accusations this week that the Kremlin’s best-known critic violated probation orders and defrauded supporters of millions of dollars in donations. They say the allegations are meant to deter him from returning to Russia, where he has promised to reinvigorate his network of activists.

Mr. Navalny fell unconscious in August aboard a flight to Moscow after meeting with grass-roots supporters in Siberia, and was subsequently evacuated to Berlin, but he has promised to come back and challenge candidates allied with President Vladimir Putin in next year’s parliamentary election, due by September. In recent weeks he has made efforts to publicly identify his attackers.

“They are trying to throw me in jail because I didn’t die on that plane and looked for the killers myself,” he said in an Instagram post.

The Kremlin has dismissed European authorities’ conclusions that Mr. Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok and has stood by the diagnosis offered by Russian doctors who initially treated him: that he lost consciousness because of a metabolic imbalance akin to a severe drop in blood sugar.

The fresh allegations, however, show the extent to which Mr. Navalny has attracted the authorities’ attention. They also present for him a dilemma in which he must choose between becoming yet another dissident in exile, which would effectively remove him from Russia’s political landscape, or return and face the threat of jail time.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s main crime investigations agency, said on Tuesday that Mr. Navalny, who built his political career on exposing the corruption and excesses of Kremlin insiders, had, among other things, used $4.78 million raised by his supporters to buy properties, pay for trips abroad and cover his personal expenses. It has begun a criminal investigation.

Earlier this week, the state agency responsible for overseeing jail terms said Mr. Navalny had violated the conditions of a 2014 suspended sentence he received on embezzlement charges. In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights decided the case was politically motivated.

Mr. Navalny said the charges against him were an attempt to exact revenge not only for surviving the poisoning on Aug. 20, but also for working with open-source researcher Bellingcat and using leaked phone data to track down and publicly expose those he says were responsible for the attack.

A video shows Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s team searching a hotel room where he stayed before being poisoned by Novichok. Supporters say they found traces of the nerve agent as pressure increases on Moscow to investigate. WSJ’s Thomas Grove reports. Photo: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters (Originally published Sept. 18, 2020)

According to a transcript he released to his millions of social-media followers last week, Mr. Navalny posed as an officer of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, on the telephone to extract details of the poisoning from one of the agents he says was part of the ensuing coverup. In the transcript, the individual said he applied the nerve agent to Mr. Navalny’s underwear.

The Wall Street Journal hasn’t independently verified the telephone conversation.

Mr. Putin and the Kremlin in recent months have tried to paint Mr. Navalny as an irrelevance and avoid using his name, referring to him instead as “the Berlin patient.”

Mr. Navalny’s organization, the Anti-Corruption Fund, meanwhile, has been the target of raids and court cases for years. Last week, Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer and one of Mr. Navalny’s closest allies, was charged with trespassing after entering the home of the FSB agent Mr. Navalny purportedly spoke with by phone.

Other supporters say authorities have taken money from their bank accounts and others have been detained or sent to far-flung army bases to serve mandatory military service.

Previous opposition figures such as Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was poisoned twice, and Garry Kasparov, who was detained repeatedly in Russia, have largely become irrelevant in domestic politics since deciding to leave the country, and Mr. Navalny may face a similar fate if he doesn’t return after his convalescence.

Allies such as Sergei Guriev, who served as a reform-minded adviser during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, and who has since left the country, predicted that the 44-year-old Navalny would return, despite the risks.

“He can’t say now he is not coming back—it would destroy his reputation,” he said. “He understands that he can be put in jail the moment he crosses the border. He also understands he can be killed.”

Others, such as Andrey Fateyev, a Navalny supporter who spent days with the opposition politician in the Siberian city of Tomsk before he was poisoned, predicted that any attempt to jail Mr. Navalny would galvanize his followers.

But he acknowledged that without Mr. Navalny’s online audience of millions, some of his movement’s momentum could be lost.

“All of this was a message to him: Stop what you’re doing, and don’t come back,” Mr. Fateyev said.

Write to Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com

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