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Russian police detain Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on arrival at airport

Russian police detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny at passport control after he flew home to Russia on Sunday, his lawyer, the prison service and Reuters witnesses said.

It was the first time Navalny has been back home since he was poisoned last summer. His plane was diverted to another Moscow airport at the last minute in an apparent effort by authorities to thwart journalists and supporters greeting him.

Navalny was detained when he showed his passport to border guards before formally entering Russia, Reuters witnesses said. His wife, Yulia, his spokeswoman and his lawyer were allowed to enter Russia.

It was not immediately clear why he had been detained.

But the Russian capital’s prison service had said beforehand it would do everything to arrest him once he returned, accusing him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a 2014 case he says was trumped up.

Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic critics, was flown to Berlin in August last year for emergency medical treatment after being poisoned with what German tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent.

“This is the best moment in the last five months,” he told reporters after he boarded the plane in the German capital, bound for Moscow. “I feel great. Finally, I’m returning to my home town.”

He announced his decision to return from Germany on Wednesday, and a day later Moscow’s prison service said it would do everything to arrest him once he returned, accusing him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a 2014 case he says was trumped up.

The 44-year-old, who boarded a plane in Berlin at the last minute from a car sitting on the tarmac, hence avoiding other passengers, made light of the risk of being arrested.

He said he didn’t think he would be arrested, calling himself an innocent person.

“What do I need to be afraid of? What bad thing can happen to me in Russia?” he added. “I feel like a citizen of Russia who has every right to return,” he added.

He was accompanied by his wife Yulia, and his spokeswoman.

Navalny, who is hoping for success in parliamentary elections in September, faces potential trouble in three other criminal cases too, all of which he says are politically motivated.

CONUNDRUM FOR KREMLIN

His return poses a conundrum for the Kremlin: jail him and risk protests and punitive Western action by turning him into a political martyr. Or do nothing and risk looking weak in the eyes of Kremlin hardliners.

He is expected to arrive in Moscow at around 1630 GMT.

The opposition politician, who says he has nearly fully recovered, says Putin was behind his poisoning. The Kremlin denies involvement, says it has seen no evidence that he was poisoned, and that he is free to return to Russia.

Navalny says the Kremlin is afraid of him. The Kremlin, which only refers to him as the “Berlin patient,” laughs that off. Putin allies point to opinion polls that show the Russian leader is far more popular than Navalny, whom they call a blogger rather than a politician.

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