Anti-corruption campaigner - GulfToday

Anti-corruption campaigner

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Flowers and candles are left at a memorial for Alexei Navalny in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin.

Western politicians and media are filled with condemnations of the Kremlin over the Feb.16 mysterious death in a Siberian maximum-security prison of Russia’s pre-eminent dissident Alexei Navalny. The Russian authorities said he died of natural causes “after a walk” in a small walled enclosure.

“Sudden death syndrome” was given as the cause. But his death was slow, fostered by repeated periods of detention, punitive solitary confinement, and too little food of poor nutritional quality.

His widow Yulia, Western leaders, and media argued he was slain on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin. After meeting Navalny’s widow and daughter last Thursday, US President Joe Biden expressed his admiration for Navalny and slapped 500 new sanctions Russia, already heavily sanctioned for its war on Ukraine.

For decades, Navalny, 47, was Russia’s most dedicated anti-corruption campaigner and Putin’s constant critic. A lawyer by training, politician by choice, and liberal democrat by vocation, he challenged the entire Russian ruling establishment. He stood for Moscow’s mayor, lost to a weak candidate, and joined various political parties before founding his own opposition movement. He made good use of social media to promote good governance and challenge Putin’s autocracy.

In 2010, he launched a whistle-blowing website which publicised cases in which state contracts were said to have been awarded without fair competition. He asked visitors to the site to report and discuss suspicious official deals. After half a year, the site was attracting a million visitors a month. He described Putin’s United Russia party as a “party of crooks and thieves,” earning Putin’s unforgiving enmity.

In 2020, while on a visit to Siberia, he was poisoned, allegedly by Russian intelligence operatives, with the Novichok nerve agent. He was promptly flown to Germany where he received treatment and recovered. When he returned to Russia in January 2021, he was immediately arrested and imprisoned for two and a half years for breaching the terms of his suspended sentence by leaving Russia. He was subsequently sentenced to multiple years in prison and treated harshly while incarcerated.

When learning of his death, hundreds of admirers laid bouquets of flowers at makeshift memorials across Russia. More than 400 were reportedly arrested, some held for a day or two, others fined.

Whistler-blower and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s wife, Stella, has warned that he could meet Navalny’s fate if extradited from Britain to the US where he has been charged with releasing collections of confidential US military documents and diplomatic cables. Assange, a 51-year-old Australian, is making a final appeal in a London court against extradition after a long struggle to escape US charges that the material WikiLeaks released endangered US agents and amounted to a violation of a 1917 US law covering espionage. Loyal US ally, Britain approved his extradition in 2022.

If transferred to the US and tried, Assange could be sentenced to 175 years in prison, a term of incarceration even Russia’s Navalny never dared contemplate. The information Assange released related to the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among the thousands of documents published were embarrassing US assessments of global leaders, including Putin.

One item was particularly damning. World watchers were shown 2007 film taken from the nose of a US military helicopter while a gunner shot down a dozen unarmed Iraqi men, including two Reuters correspondents, in a narrow back street in Baghdad.

Assange’s chief lawyer Edward Fitzgerald told the court he “is being prosecuted for engaging in ordinary journalistic practices of obtaining and publishing classified information which is true and of public interest.”

Another member of Assange’s legal team, Mark Summers said that during Donald Trump’s presidency there had been a plan to kidnap or murder Assange. If he wins his freedom, he - like Navalny - could be in danger of assassination or abduction, particularly if Putin admirer Donald Trump returns to the White House.

The US claims Assange would not stand trial for leaking sensitive material but for obtaining it illegally from ex-US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning and disclosing names of US sources, thereby putting those individuals at grave risk of harm.” Manning was jailed for 35 years. Her sentence was commuted to seven years by President Barack Obama.

Reuters reports: “If Assange wins this case, a full appeal hearing will be held to consider his challenge. If he loses, his only remaining option would be at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and Stella Assange said his lawyers would apply to the European judges for an emergency injunction if necessary.” This could prevent or postpone his extradition.

Assange did not attend last week’s hearings due to ill health. He suffered a debilitating stroke several years ago and has vowed to commit suicide if extradited to the US.

He has been fighting extraditions since 2010 when a Swedish court issued an arrest warrant on charges he had abused two Swedish women. He denied the allegations and went to Britain where a court ruled he should be extradited to Sweden which he believed would transfer him to the US. In 2012, Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London but in 2019 he was arrested by British police and confined to high security Belmarsh prison, which is referred to Britain’s version of the US Guantanamo Bay prison where alleged terrorists have been held since the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

Assange has been adopted as a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International. Media organisations have condemned his ordeal and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who voted in a parliamentary motion for his return to his homeland. It is ironic that Biden has condemned Navalny’s death and championed press freedom in Russia and elsewhere while continuing to demand the extradition of Assange.


Photo: TNS

Related articles