Vladimir Putin has refused to give any guarantees that opposition leader Alexei Navalny will get out of prison alive, saying his continued detention was not his decision and highlighting the poor state of medical care in Russian prisons.
In a lengthy and irritable interview with NBC News Before Putin’s Geneva summit with Joe Biden, the Russian president deflected a series of accusations about his government’s role in cyberattacks in the West. He also defended himself against questions about his government’s human rights record by making counter-accusations against the United States.
Navalny was a victim of poisoning with the Russian-made novichok nerve agent and was later imprisoned for more than two years. He faces further prosecution, suggesting that the Kremlin is ready to extend his prison term. His political movement was outlawed last week as part of a broader crackdown on opposition groups.
When asked if he could guarantee that Navalny would be released alive, Putin replied: “Look, those decisions in this country are not made by the president. They are dictated by the court, whether to free someone or not.
“As for health, all the people who are in prison, that is something that the administration of the prison or specific penitentiary is in charge of. And there are medical facilities in prisons that may not be in the best condition. And they are the ones who have the responsibility. “
Putin maintained his old avoidance of saying Navalny’s name, referring to him as “that person.” He said he hoped the prison medical service would do their job “correctly” but added: “To be honest, I haven’t visited those places for a long time.”
When asked about the crackdown on opposition groups, Putin claimed that they were being banned as “foreign agents,” the routine designation of dissidents in Russia, and that “tougher” laws had been in place in the United States for decades. It was an apparent reference to the Foreign agent registration law (Fara) of 1938, which requires lobbyists to register with the Treasury if they are doing paid work for a foreign government, person or entity. It is not used to prosecute opposition activists.
Regarding the Navalny poisoning and the murder of other opposition figures and dissidents, Putin said: “We don’t have this kind of habit of murdering anyone.”
Trying to turn his American interviewer around, he went on to describe the shooting of Ashli Babbitt, one of the rioters who stormed the United States Capitol on January 6, as a murder.
“Did he order the murder of the woman who entered Congress and was shot and killed by a policeman?” Putin said. Babbitt was shot by a police officer while climbing through a door into the speaker’s lobby, which had been crushed by rioters who had stormed the building.
More than 500 people have been indicted for their role in the January insurrection, which was aimed at reversing the outcome of the presidential election two months earlier and keeping Donald Trump in the presidency.
Putin tried to portray them as political prisoners. “They came to Congress with political demands. Isn’t that a persecution for political opinions? ” I ask.
The interviewer, Keir Simmons, said Putin was using “what’s up” to avoid answering questions about human rights.
“You asked me a question,” replied the Russian president. “You are not liking my answer, so you are interrupting me. This is inappropriate.
“We have a saying: ‘Don’t be mad at the mirror if you’re ugly,'” Putin continued. “It has nothing to do with you personally. But if someone blames us for something, what I’m saying is: why don’t they look at themselves? You will see yourself in the mirror, not us. There is nothing unusual about it. “
Putin said he was prepared to discuss a prisoner swap with Biden, exchanging Americans detained in Russia for Russians in American jails.
In particular, Putin mentioned Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot arrested in May 2010 in Liberia on charges of conspiracy to smuggle drugs and turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which took him to the United States for trial. The Russian government claimed that Yaroshenko was kidnapped.
Biden will raise the cases of two Americans jailed in Russia: former US Marine Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate executive.
Reed is serving a nine-year sentence on the charge of beating a Russian police officer, a charge that the US ambassador in Moscow described as “flimsy.” Putin, without proof, denounced Reed as a “troublemaker” and a “drunkard.”
Whelan, also a former Marine, was arrested at his hotel on New Year’s Eve in 2018 when he was dressing for a friend’s wedding. He was convicted of espionage after a brief trial conducted entirely behind closed doors and sentenced to 16 years in prison. No evidence against him was released, and US officials believe he was arrested as a bargaining chip for an eventual prisoner swap.