This article was originally published Feb. 18, 2021, on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, has rejected Moscow’s assertion that last year’s nerve-agent poisoning of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and protests prompted by his recent jailing is a strictly internal Russian affair.
In an interview with Current Time on February 16 via video link from Moscow, Sullivan said the “United States has no interest in fomenting dispute within Russia or encouraging protests.”
The envoy also criticized the targeting of media organizations inside Russia, including RFE/RL, under the country’s controversial “foreign agent” law, saying the United States is considering an “appropriate” response.
A Moscow court on February 2 found Navalny, 44, guilty of violating the terms of his parole while in Germany, where he was recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he and supporters say was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin has denied any role in the poisoning.
Navalny’s suspended sentence was related to an embezzlement case that he has called politically motivated. The court converted the sentence to 3 1/2 years in prison. Given credit for time already spent in detention, the Kremlin critic would have to serve two years and eight months behind bars, the court said.
The court’s ruling triggered international condemnation and protests across Russia that were violently dispersed by security forces.
More than 10,000 people were rounded up by police during rallies in more than 100 Russian cities and towns on January 23 and January 31. Many of Navalny’s political aides and allies were detained, fined, or placed under house arrest for violating sanitary and epidemiological safety precautions during a pandemic.
Moscow has remained defiant about Western criticism over its jailing of the opposition politician and the crackdown on his supporters, calling it foreign interference in its internal affairs.
During his interview with Current Time, Sullivan noted that “first, the use of a chemical weapon — which is yet to be explained; a banned chemical weapon prohibited by a treaty to which Russia is a party — that is not a domestic legal issue.”
“Second, even the case itself that has been continued against Navalny last month — that caused his arrest — is something that the European Court of Human Rights [ECHR] has found an invalid basis for any further judicial action against Navalny. This is a court to which Russia is a party, so I don’t see this as a domestic political issue,” the U.S. ambassador said.
On February 16, the Strasbourg-based ECHR called for the “immediate” release of Navalny, a demand rejected by the Kremlin as “unlawful” and “inadmissible” meddling in Russia’s affairs.
‘An Important Fundamental Right’
In an interview last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced what he called a broader course “coordinated by the entire collective West, which goes beyond mere deterrence of Russia and evolves into an aggressive deterrence of Russia.”
“They don’t like us because we have our own idea of what’s going on in the world,” he said.
Sullivan said he and the United States will continue voicing support for the “fundamental right for people [in any country] to be allowed to express their opinions and to petition the government for redress, and to gather peacefully, to assemble peacefully.”
“It is something that is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and something that we believe is an important fundamental right for all individuals,” he added.
In the United States, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation to impose fresh targeted sanctions on Russian officials found to be complicit in Navalny’s poisoning.
The European Union and Britain have already imposed travel bans and asset freezes against senior Russian officials believed to be responsible for the “attempted assassination.”
Sullivan’s interview with Current Time also touched upon the “foreign agent” law, which rights group say has been used by Russian authorities to silence dissent and muzzle organizations that have a diverging view from the authorities.
Russian regulators have hit RFE/RL, one of three foreign news organizations to be labeled as a “foreign agent,” with a series of fines in recent weeks.
Last month, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers called for new sanctions against Moscow if the Kremlin moves to enforce the fines.
“I think this is an issue that is under intense scrutiny back home in Washington about how media entities are being treated here in Russia, and I think you will see an appropriate response by the U.S. government to that,” Sullivan said.
First passed in 2012 and expanded several times since, the “foreign agent” law gives authorities the power to brand nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups, and news media deemed to receive foreign funding for political activity as “foreign agents.”
The law subjects these organizations to bureaucratic scrutiny and spot checks and requires them to attach the “foreign agent” label to their publications. They must also report on their spending and funding.
Among other things, the law requires certain news organizations that receive foreign funding to label content inside Russia as being produced by a “foreign agent.”
“More than objectionable, [the law] is a real disservice to the Russian people, to the extent that media entities like Radio Free Europe or Radio Liberty are burdened by these laws, by — for example — the disclaimer requirements which interfere with content, and subsequent fines which are going to impose reportedly large financial penalties on a media organization that is not controlled by the U.S. government,” Sullivan said.
On February 16, the Russian Duma, the parliament’s lower house, passed what Reporters Without Borders called “Kafkaesque” amendments to the “foreign agents” law.
The “nonsensical and incomprehensible” amendments, which include heavier fines, aim to intimidate journalists and get them to censor themselves, the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said in a statement.
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