/ 15 February 2021

When going home is a risky gamble

Supporters Of Alexei Navalny Gather In Berlin, Demand His Release From Russian Prison
BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 23: Some 2500 supporters of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny march in protest to demand his release from prison in Moscow on January 23, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. The protesters marched from the federal chancellery through the Russian embassy to Brandenburg Gate in part also heeding a call by Navalny to protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Navalny, who was arrested earlier this week upon his return to Moscow from Germany, has called for protests against Putin across Russia, though Russian authorities have refused to allow them and deemed the protests illegal. Berlin is home to a large expatriate Russian community. (Photo by Omer Messinger/Getty Images)

Alexei Navalny was not supposed to be in a Moscow jail. If it was up to the FSB, Russia’s main intelligence agency, the 44-year-old opposition leader would be six feet under, dead in August after being poisoned with Novichok, the Soviet-era nerve agent that has been weaponised by the agency in recent years to target the Kremlin’s enemies.

But Navalny is alive, now serving a sentence of about two-and-a-half years for violating parole on a 2014 conviction. Navalny and his brother, Oleg, were found guilty of embezzling $500 000 from a French cosmetics company. Oleg served three-and-a-half years in a prison colony; Navalny received a suspended sentence. In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights called the conviction “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.

The prosecutors in Navalny’s case argued that he violated the terms of his parole by failing to show up with the relevant authorities, or doing so on the wrong day of the week. What they failed to say was that Navalny was recuperating in Germany after the assassination attempt during the bulk of the period under review. Navalny, who has repeatedly embarrassed President Vladimir Putin with investigative reports on corruption published on YouTube, was arrested upon arrival on January 17 after spending nearly five months in a Berlin hospital.

It was never in doubt that Navalny would be arrested upon his return to Russia; the surprise is that he decided to return home anyway. Since Navalny’s detention, nationwide protests in his defence have swept Russia.

Tundu Lissu has also experienced returning home after an assassination attempt. The Tanzanian politician, an opposition MP at the time, was shot 16 times in 2017 at his residence in Dodoma.

He was flown to Kenya and Belgium for treatment. After his recovery, Lissu spent three years living in Belgium with his wife before returning in 2020 to run against President John Magufuli as candidate for the opposition party, Chadema.

Why would he return in 2020, knowing that nothing had changed? Lissu told The Continent his return was a “gamble” based on “hope that the worst had passed”. “I chose to return primarily because it was a general election year and I believed Magufuli needed to be confronted and defeated on the ballot box,” he said.

The return did not work out as planned. The election was marred by violence and irregularities, and Lissu fled back to Belgium following alleged threats to his life. He acknowledges his absence from Tanzania makes it difficult to continue his political mission, a fate analysts say Navalny was keen to avoid and was key to his decision to return home. “Not being able to participate in the struggle in Tanzania is obviously a major drawback but as long as I’m alive, the struggle continues,” Lissu said, noting that social media has proved to be a useful tool for communicating with Tanzanians.

He foresees a return to the country at an indeterminate time.

An unacknowledged aspect of the life of an opposition politician is the strain it exerts on their personal relationships. Navalny’s wife, Yulia, recently left for Germany and their two children are also believed to be abroad.

Evan Mawarire, a pastor and leader of #ThisFlag, a pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe, returned home in 2017 after six months in the US. He had been arrested multiple times by the government of then-president Robert Mugabe. Mawarire, who, like Navalny, was arrested at the airport, told The Continent that his family was constantly worried about him.

“The impact on your family is the hardest to deal with. I saw the anguish in my wife as she processed my decision. Besides the fact that my family faced full-on danger too, they also had to deal with the daily concern of my safety when I landed in prison or when I’d been tortured.”

The decision to return home while also maintaining personal safety is fraught with challenges, says Mawarire, describing it as “trying to join the repelling sides of two magnets”.

“Staying completely safe while confronting a brutal dictatorship is impossible.”

This article first appeared in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.