MOSCOW—Accusations, police detentions, and court convictions have been raining on Lyubov Sobol, one of Russia’s youngest and most prominent opposition leaders. On Tuesday, a court here ordered the woman who had been Alexei Navalny’s No. 2 to 18 months of house arrest over what authorities called a “sanitary case.”
Her crime? The 33-year-old lawyer known for her blond hair and hipster glasses is accused of breaching COVID-19 restrictions by calling on opposition activists to join a peaceful anti-Putin protest to support the imprisoned Navalny back in January.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Sobol said the rash of prosecutions won’t stop her political activism. “I have a bracelet on my ankle. They banned me from leaving Moscow or walk[ing] out of my house for a year and a half at night time. But this is nothing compared to an attempt to kill my husband in 2016 or to the Novichok assassination attempt on my closest partner Navalny,” Sobol said after the verdict.
“Authorities try to kick me out of politics, but I am not afraid of them.”
The “sanitary case” prosecutions began soon after the unauthorized January rally, and were filed against some of Navalny’s closest supporters, including his brother Oleg Navalny; Anastasia Vasilyeva, who is head of the Alliance of Doctors NGO; Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh; and Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Lysia Shtein.
In early June, a Moscow court ruled that Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was an “extremist” organization that was attempting to destabilize Russia, both politically and socially. His lawyers have appealed the sentence, but Sobol said she believes the court’s decision will stay in force—the next hearing on the “extremism” case is tomorrow.
“Authorities are doing everything to shut me up: Make us all disappear, ban Navalny’s supporters on Twitter and ban his YouTube channels, which I produce. But I will continue to fight for the rights of Russian citizens. This is important for me, as nothing in Russia is predictable—we did not expect Crimea annexation, neither we could have ever imagined the Novichok attack on Navalny.”
Investigators have claimed that thousands of Russians joined Sobol’s call to rally on Jan. 23, which created a threat of “mass disease” at the event.
Putin critics were outraged Tuesday to hear of the Sobol sentence. Boris Vishnevsky, a St. Petersburg opposition deputy, said it was “shocking” news for his city, where more than 100 people died every day while it hosted city soccer matches for Euro 2020 in June and July.
“I want to know, if Russian courts are going to sentence public officials responsible for the overcrowded fan zones during 2020 UEFA Euro Cup, as well as those who allowed the giant festival of thousands of school graduates to march in the city center on the day or Scarlet Sails—we definitely had a sharp spike of new COVID-19 cases after those events,” Vishnevsky told The Daily Beast after hearing of Sobol’s sentence.
Opposition rallies were far from being the only crowds seen in Russia during the sickest months of the COVID-19 pandemic this year. In March, when Moscow lived under quarantine restrictions, as many as 80,000 people attended Putin’s speech at the Luzhniki stadium; local media reported that most of the viewers did not have masks on. “I am not naïve to think that any of the federal bureaucrats are going to be punished on the ‘sanitary case’ for threatening the spread of mass disease,” Vishnevsky said.
Last year, Sobol had big plans to run in the parliament elections. She was convinced Russia was ready for more women in power—and for moving away from having a single all-powerful leader. She joined the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011. She also managed the anti-corruption project RosPil, as Navalny’s associate and lawyer—but her ambitions were to enter politics as a candidate.
Her plans to run for the Duma were ruined by the “extremism” sentence; Sobol quit campaigning out of concern that her campaign team members and sponsors were now under a threat of persecution for backing her. Vishnevsky has his own similar concerns. “I have also been threatened to get labeled as ‘an extremist’ for merely trying to provide aid for detained protesters earlier this year,” he said. “Authorities go after all Navalny supporters.”
Sobol said she was not surprised to hear her sentence.
“Look, this is not the first and not the last court decision against me,” she told The Daily Beast. “I am a popular politician and I am prepared for a political fight.”