German Chancellor Angela Merkel used her final official visit to Russia to tell President Vladimir Putin to free Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, but the Kremlin leader rebuffed her, saying the jailing was unrelated to politics.
The talks on Friday, as Merkel prepares to step down following elections next month, coincided with the first anniversary of Navalny’s poisoning, an incident that strained Russia-Germany ties.
Navalny was flown to Germany last year after being poisoned with what the West concluded was a military nerve agent. Moscow rejects that and alleges a Western smear campaign. Navalny was jailed when he flew back to Russia.
“We … spoke about the depressing situation of Alexei Navalny,” the German leader told reporters after the talks.
“I have demanded once again from the president to release Navalny and I have made it clear that we will remain on the case,” she said.
Putin rebuffed Merkel’s remarks, while not identifying Navalny by name and referring to him only as the “subject”.
“As for the subject in question, he was not convicted for his political activities, but for an offence against foreign partners,” Putin said, a reference to the embezzlement case.
“As far as political activities are concerned, no-one should hide behind political activities to carry out business projects, while breaking the law,” he said.
On Friday, Britain and the United States imposed sanctions on Friday on men they said were Russian intelligence operatives responsible for the poisoning of Navalny. Neither the Kremlin nor any of those named offered any immediate comment.
Washington has also imposed sanctions on one Russian vessel and two Russian individuals involved in the yet-to-be-completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, soon after Putin said it is almost finished.
In a letter to mark the anniversary that was published in three European newspapers on Friday, Navalny appealed to the West to do more to combat corruption in countries like Russia.
In Britain, the government published details of sanctions against seven individuals it said were Russian intelligence operatives suspected of involvement in his poisoning. There was no immediate reaction from Moscow.