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Alexey Navalny is one of many Kremlin opposition activists getting lengthy sentences

DON GONYEA, HOST:

A Russian court this week sentenced a leading associate of opposition leader Alexey Navalny to 7 1/2 years in prison on extremism-related charges. The ruling is the latest in a series of questionable convictions and lengthy prison terms issued to political opponents of the Kremlin. Here's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Forty-one-year-old Lilia Chanysheva has always denied charges she's an extremist, and she doesn't seem to fit the profile. Chanysheva worked in a major international accounting firm in Moscow before moving back to her native Bashkortostan, a republic nestled to the west of the Ural Mountains.

ALMAZ GATIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "She could have stayed and made money in Moscow," says her husband Almaz Gatin. "But she wanted to improve life in her home region." And that's where the trouble began. Chanysheva took a job running the regional office of Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation in the capital city Ufa, where her skills as a financial auditor quickly made her an effective check on budgetary graft - but also, her allies argue, a government target.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LILIA CHANYSHEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Video investigations by Chanysheva alleging state corruption earned her the ire of the region's governor, as did protests she helped organize, successfully, against a government-backed mining operation on lands locals considered sacred.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO CALL SOFTWARE RINGING)

CHANYSHEVA: Hello. Hi, Charles.

MAYNES: As her popularity grew, Chanysheva also fielded occasional requests from Western journalists.

CHANYSHEVA: Our people really don't understand the serious of this situation.

MAYNES: I spoke with her while researching COVID-related deaths in the region in 2020, and Chanysheva dusted off her English for a bit.

CHANYSHEVA: I have not sufficient practice last years, and (laughter) it would be better for me in Russian. Probably it would be quicker.

MAYNES: But even as her political career was taking off, pressure from the authorities was growing.

GATIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Gatin says his wife faced constant arrest and raids by police on their home, convincing him she'd become the most important politician in Bashkortostan. Critics called her Navalny in a skirt.

GATIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In fact, Chanysheva's detention on extremism charges came amid a wider crackdown on Navalny's political network in the fall of 2021, her arrest a harbinger of the shifting political climate in the months before Russia's invasion of Ukraine - one that saw Navalny jailed but also Chanysheva and soon other women targeted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANYSHEVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: After the verdict, Chanysheva thanked her supporters through the glass-enclosed defendant's cage - without you, there is no me, she told them. Meanwhile, Gatin says his wife's 7 1/2 sentence robs Bashkortostan of a new generation of leadership, but only for now.

GATIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "We'll continue to fight," he says. "For women like Lilia are the bridge," he tells me - to peace, to the future, to everything.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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