COMMENTARY: Alexei Navalny deserves America's lasting support


By Joel Collins

Because of our demonstrated capability, our balanced membership and our overall credibility, the 7,600 members of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) are uniquely qualified to credibly address our fellow Americans on important matters.

In the past, the members of ABOTA have demonstrated our commitment to justice and the rule of law by presenting our Courageous Advocacy Award to well selected persons and groups in Italy, Ireland, China and the United States. These award recipients earned our profound respect. 

In recent months the world has been introduced to perhaps the most courageous advocate in decades. He, like the other honorees, is a lawyer. He is the honorable Alexei Navalny of Moscow, Russia.

We American lawyers have every right to point with pride to the members of our profession who have historically provided visionary leadership in the struggle for justice. Thirty-four of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were lawyers. All they did was create the first written plan for a national government in the history of the world. 

Alexei Navalny was born on June 4, 1976 in the village of Butyn near Moscow. His father was a career military officer. In his childhood, he traveled from one garrison town to another with his parents. Navalny is a law school graduate of the People’s Friendship University of Russia.

As a young lawyer in 2004, Navalny founded the Muscovite Protection Committee and obtained a court ruling halting a number of construction projects which were harming the residents of nearby houses. In 2008, he became better known to the general public by publishing evidence of embezzlement of funds by Russia’s major state corporations. He founded the “Union of Minority Shareholders” and exposed corruption in Gazprom, Rosneft, Transneft, and Gazpromnft, all prominent Russian companies. 

In 2010, Navalny founded “RosPril,” an organization aimed to detect fraud and unfair competition in public procurement contracts.

In 2011, Navalny created the Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF), the largest independent public anti-corruption organization in Russia. It grew to employ 30 lawyers and economists as well as hundreds of volunteers to draft bills aimed at corruption and official high-handedness.  ACF exposed illicit enrichment of various deputies and ministers, all part of the ruling circle in Russia.

In 2012, Navalny drafted a bill that would call for a law forbidding government officials to purchase foreign cars costing more than 1.5 million rubles, which was approximately $30,000. This bill gathered more than 100,000 electronic signatures from citizens supporting it. As a result, the Russian government adopted a regulation forbidding government officials from purchasing expensive foreign cars at public expense.

Navalny’s ACF organized an effort to collect complaints about road conditions in order to force local authorities to repair defective roadways. It is reported that more than 100,000 such complaints were received, which resulted in improved condition of roadways. 

In 2013, Navalny became a candidate for Mayor of Moscow. During the campaign, he conducted more than 100 meetings with voters, visited all the districts of the city of Moscow, and proposed solutions of problems among his fellow citizens. It was reported he received 27 percent of the popular vote.

The Russian government responded to Navalny’s growing popularity and success with a propaganda campaign against him. They planted television stories falsely portraying him as “a public enemy.” Because this did not stop him, Russian officials began framing up criminal cases against Navalny. His conviction in the most controversial of these cases, the so-called Kirovles case, was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights and then later by the Supreme Court of Russia.

For the past 20 years, Alexei and his wife, Yulia, along with their two children, Daria and Zakhar, lived in a three-room apartment in the Maryino district of Moscow. In recent years their apartment has been searched multiple times, and he has spent considerable periods of time under house arrest. Despite this treatment, Navalny has bravely said repeatedly he will never stop fighting for truth and justice.

In 2014, Navalny and his ACF took their fight against corruption to a new level urging the ratification by Russia of Article 20 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption which forbids illicit enrichment of government officials. It is widely reported that Russian government officials, without any explanation of their sources, spend lavishly on yachts, mansions, private jets, and other luxury items.

In 2015, Navalny and his ACF published evidence to prove the Prosecutor General of Russia, Yuri Chaika, had connections with a criminal gang and had built a business empire through illegal methods. This documentary film amassed more than 5 million views and received a number of professional prizes and awards. 

As Navalny’s reputation grew and his activities expanded, underhanded efforts were undertaken to revoke his license as a practicing attorney.

Unfortunately, Navalny was disbarred in 2015.

In 2016, Navalny expanded the scope of his documentary videos and exposed evidence that the Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sheuvalov bought for himself a luxury apartment in Moscow. Sheuvalov’s wife was exposed for transporting her Corgi dogs to international dog shows on a private jet. 

In 2016, Navalny publicized to the whole country the huge new residence of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev worth at least 30 billion rubles, which was built and presented to him by Russian oligarchs.

In 2017, Navalny’s ACF produced a movie titled “Don’t Call Him Dimon.” It is about the secret empire of the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and presents evidence that he created a corrupt network of charity foundations that received billions of rubles from oligarchs, which money was used to buy yachts and build residences, villas, and vineyards. This movie was viewed by more than 25 million Russians.

That same year, Navalny presented himself as a candidate for President of Russia. He published a campaign platform which included an article titled, “Beautiful Russia of the Future” in which he suggested changes in various aspects of Russian life. It featured an explanation of his plans against corruption, to reduce taxes, and address inequality. He also campaigned to reduce interest rates, improve health care, and simplify small business regulations.

On December 24, 2017, Navalny finalized his candidacy. By law he was required to produce at least 500 signatures for his nomination to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).  Navalny presented more than 15,000 supporting signatures. He presented all the necessary documents to the Central Electoral Commission that day.

Shockingly, on the very next day, December 25, 2017, the CEC disqualified Navalny as a presidential candidate on the stated grounds he had a previous conviction. This was the discredited Kirovles case. This disqualification ruling was appealed to the Russian Supreme Court, the same court which had overturned his conviction. Immediately after an adverse ruling by the Supreme Court, Navalny declared a voter strike and called for peaceful civil protest against the election. 

In 2019, Navalny and his supporters prepared and released a video showing a Black Sea island palace complex purportedly owned by President Vladimir Putin. It is said to have cost at least 1.3 billion United States dollars. This feature length film was viewed by 86 million people in a span of five days. Putin denied any ownership of the property even though his initials can be seen in the swimming pool. 

In mid-2020, Navalny became the victim of a poisoning attempt to murder him. The evidence strongly points to Kremlin agents and the use of a Russian developed nerve poison, which has been used against several others who have resisted the Russian government. 

After a five-month difficult medical recovery in Germany, Navalny did perhaps the bravest thing anyone has seen. He voluntarily returned to Russia where he knew he would face imprisonment. In a fabulously successful tape-recorded conversation, he was able to obtain an admission that Russian agents had attempted to kill him by putting the Russian nerve agent Novachek on his underwear shortly before he boarded a flight. 

Rather than lying low and maintaining his safety in Germany, Navalny intrepidly returned to Moscow where he was immediately arrested. His arrest sparked huge mass protests all across the country. At least 3,450 people were arrested in January and February 2021 in 90 cities and towns, including freezing Siberian villages where protesters turned out in sub-zero degree weather. 

An international press posting has described Navalny as “finally a figure equal in size to the Kremlin and a real contender for the presidency.”  A prominent writer for The Moscow Times described him as “one who has become something of a mythical hero, resurrected and given a second chance.” He went on to describe Navalny as a man “who chose not to live out his days peacefully abroad but to conquer evil, defy death, and defeat his enemies.” He proclaimed Navalny as “the world’s most famous political prisoner.”

After Navalny’s arrest at the airport upon his return to Russia, all eyes fell upon Yulia Navalnaya, his strong and noble wife. She has joined the protesters and assumed a leading role in dealing with the press. It was she who extricated him from the clutches of Russian officials so he could be flown to Germany for medical treatment. In a later interview, she stated, “I understand that in this situation I am the closest person to him. I am the wife. If I fall apart, then everybody else will in turn fall apart. So, I pulled myself together ... I am not afraid, and I urge you all not to be afraid either.” 

Navalny has publicly stated that his wife saved his life.   

When Navalny was brought to court on February 1, 2021, he was sentenced by Judge Natalia Repnikova to 2-1/2 years in prison for a claimed violation of his parole after an earlier bogus fraud conviction. Navalny, never to be intimidated, humiliated President Putin by making fun of him. He publicly stated how President Putin will be remembered. Referring to Russian history, he stated on the record and in court, “There was Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Now we will have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants.”

The world has not seen a braver lawyer in recent years. The members of the American Board of Trial Advocates salute Alexei Navalny and applaud him.

We urge American citizens to speak out in opposition to his imprisonment and in support of his crusade for truth, justice and the rule of law. We urge all Americans and the United States government to demand his release.
Joel Collins is the co-founder of Collins & Lacy, a law firm based in Columbia, S.C. He is a past president of ABOTA.