A Moscow court has jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny for more than two and a half years, finding that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning.
Just before today's ruling, Navalny, who is the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, had denounced the proceedings as a vain attempt by the Kremlin to scare millions of Russians into submission.
His team called on Russians to rally immediately in central Moscow's Manezh Square in protest; authorities closed four subway stations nearest to the square.
The ruling came despite massive protests across Russia over the past two weekends and Western calls to free the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner.
"We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after the ruling.
The prison sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated and politically motivated.
Navalny was arrested on January 17 upon returning from his five-month convalescence in Germany from the attack, which he has blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities deny any involvement. Despite tests by several European labs, Russian authorities said they have no proof he was poisoned.
As the order was read, Navalny smiled and pointed to his wife Yulia in the courtroom and traced the outline of a heart on the glass cage where he was being held. "Everything will be fine," he told her as guards led him away.
Earlier in the proceedings, Navalny attributed his arrest to Putin's "fear and hatred", saying the Russian leader will go down in history as a "poisoner".
"I have deeply offended him simply by surviving the assassination attempt that he ordered," he said.
"The aim of that hearing is to scare a great number of people," Navalny added. "You can't jail the entire country."
Navalny emphasised that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that his 2014 conviction was unlawful and Russia paid him compensation in line with the ruling.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to demand his release and chant slogans against Putin.
Police detained more than 5750 people on Monday, including more than 1900 in Moscow, the biggest number the nation has seen since Soviet times. Most were released after being handed a court summons, and they face fines or jail terms of seven to 15 days. Several people faced criminal charges over alleged violence against police.
"I am fighting and will keep doing it even though I am now in the hands of people who love to put chemical weapons everywhere and no one would give three kopecks for my life," Navalny said.
Navalny's team called for a demonstration today outside the Moscow courthouse, but police were out in force, cordoning off nearby streets and making random arrests. More than 320 people were detained, according to the OVD-Info group that monitors arrests.
Hours before the ruling, authorities also cordoned off Red Square and other parts of central Moscow, as well as Palace Square in St Petersburg in anticipation of protests. Police flooded the centres of both cities.
In court, Navalny thanked protesters for their courage and urged other Russians not to fear repression.
"Millions can't be jailed," he said. "You have stolen people's future and you are now trying to scare them. I'm urging all not to be afraid."
After his arrest, Navalny's team released a two-hour YouTube video featuring an opulent Black Sea residence allegedly built for Putin. The video has been viewed more than 100 million times, fuelling discontent as ordinary Russians struggle with an economic downturn, the coronavirus pandemic and widespread corruption during Putin's years in office.
Putin insisted last week that neither he nor his relatives own any of the properties mentioned in the video.