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Putin critic Alexei Navalny has been detained after flying back to Moscow, five months after he was nearly killed by a nerve agent attack.

The activist, 44, was led away by police at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport.

Crowds had gathered at a different Moscow airport to greet his flight from Berlin, but the plane was diverted.

Mr Navalny blames Russian authorities for the attempt on his life last year. The Kremlin denies any role.

But the opposition politician’s allegations have been backed up by reports from investigative journalists.

European Council President Charles Michel described Mr Navalny’s detention as “unacceptable”. 

“I call on Russian authorities to immediately release him,” Mr Michel wrote in a tweet.

Joe Biden’s incoming White House national security adviser echoed the call. “The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard,” Jake Sullivan said.

How did events unfold?

“I know that I’m right. I fear nothing,” Mr Navalny told his supporters and the media at Sheremetyevo airport just minutes before his detention.

He kissed his wife Yulia – who had flown with him from Germany – after police officers warned they would use physical force if he disobeyed their orders. Mr Navalny’s lawyer was not allowed to accompany him.

Earlier on Sunday, extra riot police were deployed and metal barriers erected inside Vnukovo airport, where the plane was originally scheduled to land.

Russian media reported that a number of activists – including key Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol – had been detained.

Mr Navalny – who received medical treatment in Germany after his poisoning – earlier urged supporters to meet him off the flight, and a “Let’s meet Navalny” page was set up on Facebook (in Russian). Thousands of people said they would go or expressed an interest, despite forecasts of extreme cold and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Navalny collapsed on an internal flight in Siberia last August, and it later emerged he had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities have consistently denied any role in the poisoning, and the Kremlin has rejected Mr Navalny’s claims that President Vladimir Putin himself ordered it.

Why was he detained?

In a statement late on Sunday, Russia’s penitentiary service said Mr Navalny “had been wanted since 29 December 2020 for repeated violations of the probation period”.

The penitentiary service added that he would remain in custody until a court decision.

The authorities accuse him of violating conditions imposed after a conviction for embezzlement, for which he received a suspended sentence. He has always said the case was politically motivated.

A number of Navalny supporters were detained at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport

Separately, Russian prosecutors have launched a new criminal case against him on fraud charges related to transfers of money to various NGOs, including his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Mr Navalny argued that Mr Putin was doing all he could to stop his opponent from returning to Russia by fabricating new cases against him.

What happened to Navalny last year?

In August, the opposition leader collapsed on a plane flying home from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow and the pilot diverted the flight to the city of Omsk, from where he was eventually allowed to fly on to Germany in an induced coma.

He was released from hospital in Berlin in September to continue his recuperation.

Mr Navalny said recently he was able to do push-ups and squat exercises, and therefore had probably almost fully recovered. 

Last month, investigative reporters named three FSB agents who had travelled to Tomsk at the time Mr Navalny was there, and said the specialist unit had tailed him for years.

Mr Navalny then, in a phone call, duped an FSB agent named Konstantin Kudryavtsev into revealing details of the operation against him, according to the Bellingcat investigative group.

The agent told him that the Novichok used to poison him was placed in his underpants. 

Mr Kudryavtsev said during the phone call he had later been sent to Omsk to seize Mr Navalny’s clothes and remove all traces of Novichok from them. 

President Putin has dismissed investigations by Bellingcat and others into the poisoning of Mr Navaln as “a trick”. He has said his rival is backed by US intelligence services.

Russian authorities have consistently denied any role in the poisoning, and the Kremlin has rejected Mr Navalny’s claims that President Vladimir Putin himself ordered it.

Why was he detained?

In a statement late on Sunday, Russia’s penitentiary service said Mr Navalny “had been wanted since 29 December 2020 for repeated violations of the probation period”.

The penitentiary service added that he would remain in custody until a court decision.

The authorities accuse him of violating conditions imposed after a conviction for embezzlement, for which he received a suspended sentence. He has always said the case was politically motivated.

Mr Navalny then, in a phone call, duped an FSB agent named Konstantin Kudryavtsev into revealing details of the operation against him, according to the Bellingcat investigative group.

The agent told him that the Novichok used to poison him was placed in his underpants. 

Mr Kudryavtsev said during the phone call he had later been sent to Omsk to seize Mr Navalny’s clothes and remove all traces of Novichok from them. 

President Putin has dismissed investigations by Bellingcat and others into the poisoning of Mr Navaln as “a trick”. He has said his rival is backed by US intelligence services.

Analysis box by Steve Rosenberg, Moscow correspondent

The Russian authorities often make out that Alexei Navalny isn’t popular with the Russian people, that he’s no threat to President Putin. 

But his return home five months after being poisoned sparked a major police operation on Sunday.

In chaotic scenes, riot police pushed Mr Navalny’s supporters out of the arrivals hall of Vnukovo airport, before the flight was rerouted.

Last summer, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure was attacked in Siberia allegedly by an undercover hit squad of Russian security agents.

His decision to return home is a direct challenge to Vladimir Putin – and creates a dilemma for the Kremlin.

It risks turning him into a political martyr, a Nelson Mandela-like figure, and sparking more Western sanctions. 

Do nothing and the Kremlin’s fiercest critic will almost certainly be a thorn in its side in an important election year.

BBC

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