A Russian court placed opposition leader Alexei Navalny under house arrest for at least two months on Friday and barred him from using the Internet or speaking to the media as authorities probe charges of embezzlement brought against him. Kremlin opponents say the move is part of a concerted effort by the government to quash dissent that could be inspired by the recent political turmoil in Ukraine.
The court said Navalny, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin and a leader of anti-Kremlin protests in 2011 and 2012, had violated rules barring him from leaving Moscow.
Navalny, who has been instrumental in rallying Russia’s young Internet generation against Putin’s rule, denounced the ruling as baseless and said it was meant to silence him. Supporters, including members of protest band Pussy Riot, shouted “Freedom!” as he left the courtroom.
“I believe the new measures are based on trumped-up grounds in order to restrict my political activities,” Navalny, 37, said in court.
Opposition activists say the upheaval in neighboring Ukraine, where protests forced President Viktor Yanukovich from power after he scrapped plans for closer European Union ties to move closer to Moscow, has deepened Putin’s determination to prevent any revival of street demonstrations.
They say Putin is also clamping down on dissent after engineering the release of long-jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two members Pussy Riot before the Sochi Olympics, which ended last week.
Navalny, who gained prominence with blog posts alleging government corruption, emerged from the biggest protests against Putin’s 14-year rule as the main opposition leader and a potential future challenger in elections.
He is serving a five-year suspended sentence on a theft conviction that will keep him out of a 2018 presidential vote, and he has been charged with theft and money laundering in a separate case that has not come to trial.
Navalny was one of hundreds of people detained on Monday at protests against the jailing of seven activists convicted of rioting and attacking police at a demonstration against Putin on the eve of his inauguration to a six-year third term in 2012.
Lawyers and relatives of those activists say they believe the jail sentences, ranging from two-and-a-half to four years, were a signal from the Kremlin that it will act firmly to prevent any repeat of the Ukraine events in Russia.
Putin denies he uses the courts as a political tool and has shrugged off criticism over what Western governments see as measures restricting free speech and assembly during his new term.
Prosecutors said Navalny had repeatedly violated the terms of his suspended sentence by leaving his home region without first notifying the capital. The judge agreed that was a violation. Navalny denied he had done anything wrong and said his anti-corruption work would continue without him.
Under the terms of his house arrest, which expires on April 28 but is renewable, he is barred from using the Internet and telephone and may speak only to close relatives, his lawyers and the authorities, his spokeswoman Anna Veduta said on Twitter.
The measures were imposed in connection with a case in which Navalny and his brother are charged with stealing $720,000 from a Russian affiliate of French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher and $110,000 from another firm through fraud and with laundering $580,000. Navalny denies guilt.