Russian politician Alexei Navalny announced the start of a new mass campaign against President Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine on Monday as he began his latest trial in prison, facing a potential sentence of several decades more behind bars.
Navalny, 47, is already serving sentences totalling 11-1/2 years, and is now facing an array of charges linked to alleged "extremist" activity. Acquittals of opposition figures are practically unheard of in Russia.
Journalists who had traveled to the penal colony where Navalny is imprisoned in Melekhovo, about 235 km (145 miles) east of Moscow, were barred from the courtroom but could initially follow proceedings by video from a room nearby, though the sound was barely intelligible.
Navalny, looking thin with cropped hair and dressed in a black prison uniform, stood and spoke loudly for three minutes. He unsuccessfully demanded access to the courtroom for his elderly parents, and contested the authority of the judge from Moscow to try him in a prison far from the capital.
But the feed was later cut, and a court spokesperson said further proceedings would take place behind closed doors.
Prosecutors had raised security concerns, saying they had received evidence of a planned "provocation" - a suggestion dismissed by Navalny supporters.
"What can be more secure than a strict-regime penal colony where no one is even allowed into the hall?" his spokesperson Kira Yarmysh tweeted.
Navalny's father Anatoly left the prison compound saying: "No shame, no conscience, no honor."
Navalny's supporters accuse Moscow of trying to break him in jail, where he has had long spells in solitary confinement, to silence his criticism of Putin.
The Kremlin says his case is purely a judicial matter. "We are not following this trial," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
'WE WILL TURN PEOPLE AGAINST THE WAR'
As reporters waited for news from the hearing, Navalny's camp announced a new campaign to turn Russian public opinion against Putin and the war in Ukraine.
Navalny, who posts on social media through his lawyers and allies, and in the 2010s brought people onto the streets in their tens of thousands, urged Russians to "join forces in the fight against Putin's lies and Kremlin hypocrisy."
He asked marketing and IT specialists, sociologists, political scientists, donors and volunteers to sign up.
"We will conduct an election campaign against war. And against Putin. Just that. A long, stubborn, exhausting but fundamentally important campaign where we will turn people against the war," he said.
Russia's next presidential election is due in 2024, and Putin has yet to confirm whether he will stand.
Navalny's movement is banned from all political activity, but he said it could still achieve a powerful impact through targeted messaging, given that "every grandmother now has WhatsApp and Telegram."
"Our activities, of course, will be declared illegal and subversive. All the forces of the state apparatus will be thrown into the fight against it," Navalny said.
"Well, great, and we will throw all our forces into the fight against the apparatus of war, corruption and stupidity."
He said Putin was a talentless military leader who had "madly and stupidly" led Russia into a dead end with his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Putin has repeatedly told Russians that they are engaged in an existential fight in which the West is trying to use Ukraine to inflict a "strategic defeat" on Moscow.
In power since the last day of 1999, the Kremlin leader has systematically cracked down on dissent, and all his leading opponents are now abroad or in prison.
Despite numerous setbacks in the war and mounting Russian casualties, he remains politically dominant and is widely expected to seek and win a new six-year term next March.