Alexey Navalny appeared in court via video link on Wednesday for the start of hearings into complaints against the conditions at the penal colony where he is being held, with the Kremlin critic claiming authorities are limiting his access to reading materials and denying him news.
The 44-year-old is currently imprisoned at a facility east of Moscow, where he is serving a two and a half year jail sentence for alleged parole violations relating to a 2014 embezzlement conviction he dismisses as fabricated.
He was arrested in January upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.
He has alleged that since entering prison, authorities have refused to give him texts sent by relatives, including the Quran, and censored the newspapers he receives.
“It’s a bizarre situation”, the AFP news agency quoted Navalny as saying at Wednesday’s court hearing in the town of Petushki.
“I would like to be given the books that were sent to me.”
Navalny told the court he had only been able to obtain a copy of the Quran after he was transferred in April to a hospital in another penal colony, where he received treatment after conducting a weeks-long hunger strike to protest against an alleged lack of medical attention by prison authorities for acute back and leg pain.
He also complained that the newspapers he had received appeared to have had articles removed from them with scissors.
“I am not against Penal Colony No 2 reading my letters. But why cut out newspaper articles?” he said, referring to the facility where he was ordered to serve his sentence.
New criminal investigations
The hearing came after Navalny on Tuesday said Russian investigators had launched three new criminal investigations against him in a move his allies said they feared could keep him behind bars for many more years.
He said investigators were looking into his alleged mishandling of nearly $5m of donations given to his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and had accused him of insulting judge Vera Akimova.
Navalny said he had also been accused of creating a non-commercial organisation and encouraging Russians to abandon “their civic duties” by publishing an investigation into President Vladimir Putin’s allegedly vast personal wealth earlier this year.
The new charges were announced as pressure builds on Russia’s political opposition ahead of parliamentary elections in the country that are scheduled to take place in September.
Moscow is seeking to have Navalny’s network of regional offices and his FBK categorised as “extremist”, with a court hearing on the possible designations due to take place next month.
In a bid to shield its members and supporters from possible prosecution, Navalny’s network has disbanded prior to the ruling.
Most of his top allies have since been placed under house arrest or left Russia.
Russia’s financial monitoring service Rosfinmonitoring has already added Navalny’s political network to its database of “terrorist and extremist” organisations.
Russian legislators approve election reforms
In an apparent further blow to Navalny’s movement, Russian legislators on Wednesday approved proposed election reforms that would ban people involved with organisations deemed “extremist” from being elected to the country’s lower house of parliament.
The Kremlin-controlled State Duma quickly endorsed the bill during its third and final reading.
The bill will now need to be approved by the Russian parliament’s upper house and signed off by Putin to become law.
The measure has been interpreted by Navalny’s allies as intended to prevent them from seeking parliamentary seats and more widely to stifle Putin’s critics ahead of September’s vote.
“It is about deprivation of rights of hundreds of thousands or even millions of our citizens. Of course, this is unacceptable because every citizen has the right to participate in state governance,” Communist Party member Alexey Kurinny, who called on his colleagues to vote against the law, said on Wednesday.
Navalny’s initial imprisonment at the beginning of this year led to anti-government protests that were the biggest public show of defiance against Moscow in recent years.
The Kremlin denounced the rallies as illegal as authorities arrested thousands who took to the streets in towns and cities across Russia.