In his first public appearance since ending a weeks-long hunger strike, jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny looked visibly thinner in a court hearing via video link, and was sporting a buzz haircut.
Thursday’s hearing was linked to Navalny’s appeal against a defamation conviction handed to him in February for allegedly insulting a World War II veteran. He was ordered to pay a fine of 850,000 rubles ($11,500) over the case.
During the hearing, he addressed his wife Yulia, who was in the courtroom.
“I was taken to a bania [Russian sauna] yesterday to look good today. I looked at myself – I’m a horrible skeleton. I’m in a horrible shape, as if I’m in seventh grade,” he said.
“If I remove clothing, I will look much worse. Yesterday, I ate four spoons of porridge, today I have the same, tomorrow I will eat six spoons of porridge. I’m waiting until I will eat 10 spoons of porridge per day. It will be a breakthrough.”
Navalny, 44, has denounced the slander charges as part of official efforts to disparage him.
He also launched an attack on President Vladimir Putin in the proceedings.
“I want to say, my dear court, that your king is naked, and more than one little boy is screaming about it,” he said. “Already millions of people are screaming about it. Twenty years of incompetent governing have led to the following result; there is a crown slipping from his ears, there are lies on TV, we have spent trillions of rubles and our country continues to slide into poverty.
“Unsurprisingly, economists write letters and say that the last few years should be called a lost decade.”
The latest episode in a series of court battles between Russian officials and Navalny came as the Kremlin critic’s allies announced they were closing their network of campaign offices amid intense pressure from Moscow.
‘The end of Navalny’
Separately on Thursday, another court in Moscow was holding a hearing to consider a request from state prosecutors that Navalny’s anti-corruption organisation and regional offices be outlawed.
The Moscow prosecutor’s office petition calls for Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption (FBK) and political network to be declared as “extremist” organisations, equating them with groups such as ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
Such a designation would effectively ban their activities – allowing authorities to freeze activists’ bank accounts and exposing members and supporters to lengthy prison terms – and hamper their efforts to unseat Putin.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Moscow, said the Kremlin’s moves to “crack down on all of Navalny’s activities” were designed to put him and his movement “underground”.
“It’s the end of Navalny and his … campaign against Putin,” Smith said. “It silences his [Putin’s] most important critic.”
Alexander Titov, a lecturer in modern European history specialising in Russia at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, said there was a clear and consistent strategy by the Kremlin to “eliminate any Navalny presence in Russia and all of its regions”.
“So far, it has been working quite well,” Titov told Al Jazeera. “I think they [Navalny and his allies] are in big trouble, and it calls into question what was the strategy when he came back [to Russia] because I think they did not expect such a widespread and consistent crackdown as they are experiencing now.”
‘Extremism’ hearing set for May
The main hearing in the “extremism” case has been set for May 17, Navalny’s lawyers said on Thursday.
But his top ally Leonid Volkov said the regional campaign offices would nevertheless be disbanded before that date.
Preserving the network in its current state “is impossible” because of the “extremism charges but rebranding them wouldn’t help either”, Volkov said via Telegram. “We’re officially dismantling the network of Navalny’s headquarters.”
Earlier this week, the Moscow prosecutor’s office had issued an injunction ordering Navalny’s regional offices to suspend their activities pending the court ruling on the “extremism” designation.
A court in Moscow also imposed restrictions on the FBK, including partially barring it from accessing its bank accounts, from organising protests and publishing media articles.
Navalny set up a network of offices in dozens of regions when he was campaigning to run against Putin in the 2018 presidential election. He was eventually barred from running but kept the infrastructure in place.
The regional “headquarters”, as the team called them, began their own investigations into corruption by local officials and recruited activists, some of whom later ran for public office themselves.
The offices were also instrumental in organising nationwide rallies in support of Navalny earlier this year.
“The networks of Navalny’s headquarters doesn’t exist any more, but there are dozens of strong and tough regional politicians, thousands of his supporters, there are strong and independent political organisations which will work on investigations and elections, public campaigns and rallies. You will help them, and they will succeed,” Volkov said.
New criminal case
With the Kremlin critic in prison, dozens of his aides and associates have been placed under arrest.
Navalny was arrested in January upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin – accusations that Russian officials reject.
His arrest led to protests across Russia that proved to be the biggest show of defiance against the Kremlin in years. But they did not stop authorities from putting Navalny on trial for alleged parole violations of a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he has rejected as fabricated.
Navalny was subsequently found guilty of violating the terms of his suspended sentence and was ordered to serve two and a half years in prison.
Last month, he was transferred to a penal colony notorious for its harsh conditions, from where he launched his hunger strike in protest against the alleged refusal by prison officials to provide him proper medical care after he complained of illness.
On Thursday, Navalny’s allies said a new criminal case had been opened against him for allegedly setting up a non-profit organisation that infringed on the rights of citizens.