Navalny network disbands as gaunt Kremlin critic appears in court

Moscow (AFP) –


Alexei Navalny's political network said Thursday it is disbanding, as the jailed Kremlin critic appeared in court, gaunt and shaven headed, for the first time since ending his hunger strike.

During the hearing, which is part of an appeal by Navalny against a defamation sentence imposed in February for insulting a World War II veteran, the opposition figure said he had lost more weight but had started eating again.

"I was taken to a bathhouse yesterday... there was a mirror there, I looked at myself -- I am just a horrible skeleton," Navalny told the court, according to an audio recording released by the independent Dozhd television channel.

"I haven't weighed this much since seventh grade," he added, telling his wife Yulia who was in court that he is now allowed a couple spoonfuls of porridge a day.

Another court held a hearing Thursday into a request from prosecutors that Navalny's regional network and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) both be recognised as extremist, equating the organisations with the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda.

If the request is met, their activities would be banned, putting members and supporters at risk of lengthy jail time. The hearings are set to resume on May 17.

The head of the regional network, however, said Thursday it had already been decided to shutter it.

"We are officially disbanding Navalny's network," Leonid Volkov said in a video posted on social media.

He added that some of the offices would continue their activities as independent, political organisations.

Earlier this week, prosecutors ordered the network to suspend its activities ahead of the ruling and a court imposed sweeping bans on FBK.

- New criminal cases -

FBK was launched in 2011 and routinely releases investigations into alleged corruption by officials at all levels of government, often accompanied by YouTube videos.

The regional network was founded during Navalny's presidential campaign in 2018, although the opposition figure was barred from running.

It later supported his graft investigations as well as the Smart Voting strategy, which directs voters to cast their ballots for candidates best placed to defeat Kremlin-linked opponents.

Navalny was arrested in January after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had spent months recovering from a poisoning attack that he says was orchestrated by President Vladimir Putin.

Authorities have increased pressure against Navalny's supporters since his return, with many top aides having left the country or been placed under house arrest.

Navalny's allies said Thursday that while studying the extremism case files they discovered that Navalny, Volkov and FBK head Ivan Zhdanov are facing criminal charges that they were previously unaware of.

They are accused of creating an organisation "infringing upon the liberties and rights of individuals", an offence punishable by up to four years in jail.

Navalny, Putin's most vocal critic, is serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in a penal colony outside Moscow for violating parole terms on old fraud charges that he says are politically motivated.

The opposition figure refused food for three weeks, demanding adequate medical treatment in prison for severe back pain and numbness in his limbs.