A Russian court jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on Tuesday, in a ruling he blamed on President Vladimir Putin’s personal hatred and fear of him.
The decision, which followed nationwide protests calling for Navalny’s release, will further strain relations with the West, which is considering imposing sanctions on Russia over its handling of the case.
The US, Britain, Germany and the EU urged Moscow to immediately free Navalny.
Russia is already under numerous Western sanctions and analysts say the West’s options for more pressure are limited. A Navalny ally had urged the West before the hearing to hit Putin’s inner circle with personal sanctions.
The Kremlim has claimed that Navalny is a CIA asset, and has told the West to stay out of its domestic affairs.
Navalny, one of Putin’s most prominent critics, was arrested on Jan 17 for alleged parole violations after returning from Germany where he had been recovering from being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent.
Navalny said Russian state security agents had put the poison in his underpants, something the Kremlin denied.
“Putin’s only method is killing people. However much he pretends to be a great geo-politician, he’ll go down in history as a poisoner. There was Alexander the Liberator, Yaroslav the Wise, and Putin the Underwear Poisoner,” said Navalny.
His supporters, on hearing the ruling, encouraged people to gather in central Moscow though riot police had already taken up position.
Reuters reporters saw hundreds of protesters and the police detain many of them. Some of them chanted, “Putin is a thief!” and “Putin is a poisoner!”