Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny arrived Sunday in Moscow where he was under threat of imminent arrest, after a last-minute diversion of his flight to a different airport and the detention of several top allies.
The plane carrying Navalny from Germany, where the 44-year-old had been recovering from a poisoning he blames on Russian authorities, landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport around 8:15 pm (1715 GMT), AFP journalists on the flight said.
The pilot had told passengers there was a delay for “technical reasons” and then that the flight had been diverted from Vnukovo, another Moscow airport where Navalny’s supporters and media had gathered for his return.
President Vladimir Putin’s most well-known opponent was returning to Russia for the first time since the poisoning in August, in defiance of warnings from officials that they would arrest him for breaking the terms of a suspended prison sentence.
Supporters had gathered at Vnukovo despite the airport banning mass events because of coronavirus restrictions. With his plane still in the air, police detained top Navalny aides including prominent Moscow activist Lyubov Sobol.
Footage shot by local journalists inside the airport showed police leading her and three others away, and other supporters were seen being detained outside.
OVD Info, which monitors detentions at political protests in Russia, said at least 37 people had been detained at the airport.
The flight carrying Navalny from Germany took off from Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport just after 3:15 pm (1415 GMT).
Speaking to reporters on the plane, Navalny said he did not fear being arrested on arrival in Moscow.
“They will arrest me? They will arrest me? That’s impossible, I’m an innocent person,” Navalny said.
“I feel I am a citizen of Russia who has the full right to return to his home.”
There was a heavy security presence at Vnukovo, AFP journalists at the airport said, including dozens of police in riot gear with black helmets and batons.
– ‘Support his courage’ –
Some Navalny supporters had also answered a call from his team to show up, including Tanya Shchukina, an artist who had travelled from Saint Petersburg.
“It is important for me, as a Russian citizen, to support this man, his courage,” she told AFP. “After this assassination attempt… I had to come to support him, to show him that he is not alone, that everything will be okay.”
Navalny fell violently ill on a flight over Siberia in August and was flown out to Berlin in an induced coma.
Western experts concluded he was poisoned with Soviet-designed nerve toxin Novichok and Navalny alleges the attack was carried out on Putin’s orders.
The Kremlin denies any involvement and Russian investigators said there were no grounds to launch a probe into the attack.
Russia’s prison service, the FSIN, says Navalny may face jail time on arrival in Moscow for violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence he was handed on fraud charges.
The FSIN said it would be “obliged” to detain Navalny once he returned to Russia.
The anti-graft campaigner may also face criminal charges under a probe launched late last year by Russian investigators who say he misappropriated over $4 million worth of donations.
– Anti-corruption investigations –
Navalny has been the symbol of Russia’s protest movement for a decade, after rising to prominence as an anti-corruption blogger and leading anti-government street rallies.
He publishes YouTube investigations into the wealth of Russia’s political elites. Some of the videos garner millions of views, making the activist’s team a target of lawsuits, police raids and jail stints.
Navalny is ignored or given negative coverage by state-controlled TV, the primary source of news for many Russians, which makes it unclear how much support he enjoys among ordinary citizens.
According to a poll published by the independent Levada Centre last year, only 20 percent of respondents said they approved of Navalny’s actions, while 50 percent disapproved.
The Kremlin opponent has never held elected office. He came second in a 2013 vote for mayor of Moscow but was barred from standing against Putin in the 2018 presidential elections.
His allies are also frequently prevented from running for election.
In 2019, several Navalny allies were barred from running for the Moscow city council, sparking mass rallies in the capital that lasted several weeks.
His team has been gearing up to challenge the ruling United Russia party in elections to the lower house State Duma due in September.