Kremlin foe Navalny, smiling and joking, appears in court via video link from an Arctic prison

The Russian opposition leader was transferred in December to the ‘special regime’ penal colony in Kharp — the highest security level of prisons in Russia

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a TV screen as he appears in a video link provided by the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service from the courtroom in Kovrov, Russia. Jan. 10, 2024.Antonina Favorskaya (AP)

A smiling and joking Alexei Navalny appeared in court Wednesday via video link from the Arctic penal colony where he is serving a 19-year sentence, the first time the Russian opposition leader has been shown on camera since his transfer to the remote prison.

Russian news outlets released images of Navalny, in black prison garb and with a buzz cut, on a live TV feed from the “special regime” penal colony in the town of Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets region about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow.

At the hearing, Navalny cracked jokes about the Arctic weather and asked if officials at his former prison threw a party when he was transferred.

The video was beamed to a hearing in a courtroom hundreds of miles away in the town of Kovrov, in the Vladimir region of central Russia, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) east of Moscow, near Penal Colony No. 6, where Navalny had been held until last month. The hearing was for one of many lawsuits he filed against the penal colony — this particular one challenged one of his stints in a “punishment cell.”

In video footage and media reports from the hearing, Navalny, 47, talked in his usual sardonic tone about how much he had missed officials at his old prison and the Kovrov court officials, and he joked about the harsh prison in Russia’s far north.

“Conditions here (at the penal colony in Kharp) — and that’s a dig at you, esteemed defendants — are better than at IK-6 in Vladimir,” Navalny deadpanned, using the penal colony’s acronym.

“There is one problem, though — and I don’t know which court to file a suit about it — the weather is bad here,” he added with a chuckle.

He was transferred in December to the “special regime” penal colony in Kharp — the highest security level of prisons in Russia. Navalny, who is President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest political foe, is serving time on charges of extremism.

Navalny spent months in isolation at Prison Colony No. 6 before his transfer. He was repeatedly placed in a tiny punishment cell over alleged minor infractions, like buttoning his prison uniform wrong. They also refused to give him his mail, deprived him of writing supplies, denied him food he had ordered and paid for in addition to regular meals, and wouldn’t allow visits from relatives, Navalny argued in his lawsuits challenging his treatment.

In the one heard Wednesday, Navalny contested a stint in solitary confinement, and the judge ruled against him and sided with prison officials — just like in other such lawsuits he filed.

Russian independent news site Mediazona reported that the court played a video of an incident last year in which Navalny lashed out at a prison official who took away his pen. The official then accused Navalny of insulting him, and the politician was put in the punishment cell for 12 days.

According to the report, Navalny admitted Wednesday that he shouldn’t have “yelled” at the official and “overdid it” by calling him names, but he argued nonetheless that he was allowed to have the pen and shouldn’t have been punished by prison officials.

Navalny also asked the penal colony’s representatives whether they celebrated his transfer with a “party, or a karaoke party,” drawing laughter from the judge, Mediazona reported.

Navalny has been behind bars since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin. Before his arrest, he campaigned against official corruption, organized major anti-Kremlin protests and ran for public office.

He has since received three prison sentences, rejecting all the charges against him as politically motivated.

On Tuesday, Navalny said in a social media statement relayed from behind bars that prison officials in Kharp accused him of refusing to “introduce himself in line with protocol,” and also ordered him to serve seven days in an isolated punishment cell.

“The thought that Putin will be satisfied with sticking me into a barracks in the far north and will stop torturing me in the punishment confinement was not only cowardly, but naive as well,” he said.

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