MOSCOW — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday used her final official visit to Russia to tell President Vladimir Putin to free Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, but the Kremlin leader rebuffed her, saying the jailing was unrelated to politics.
The talks, as Merkel prepares to step down following elections next month, coincided with the first anniversary of Navalny's poisoning, an incident that strained Russia-Germany ties.
Navalny was flown to Germany last year after being poisoned with what the West concluded was a military nerve agent. Moscow rejects that and alleges a Western smear campaign. Navalny was jailed when he flew back to Russia.
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"We ... spoke about the depressing situation of Alexei Navalny," the German leader told reporters after the talks.
"I have demanded once again from the president to release Navalny and I have made it clear that we will remain on the case," she said.
Putin rebuffed Merkel's remarks, while not identifying Navalny by name and referring to him only as the "subject".
"As for the subject in question, he was not convicted for his political activities, but for an offence against foreign partners," Putin said, a reference to the embezzlement case.
"As far as political activities are concerned, no-one should hide behind political activities to carry out business projects, while breaking the law," he said.
On Friday, Britain and the United States imposed sanctions on Friday on men they said were Russian intelligence operatives responsible for the poisoning of Navalny. Neither the Kremlin nor any of those named offered any immediate comment.
Washington has also imposed sanctions on one Russian vessel and two Russian individuals involved in the yet-to-be-completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, soon after Putin said it is almost finished.
Relations between Merkel and Putin, two of Europe's longest serving leaders, soured in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, drawing broad condemnation and sanctions from the West.
At a news conference following talks that lasted almost three hours, the leaders said they had discussed Afghanistan, Libya and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany.
On Afghanistan, Putin said it was not in Russia's interests to dwell on the results of the U.S. military campaign there and that it was important to establish good and neighbourly relations with Afghanistan.
Merkel is due to step down as chancellor after a Sept. 26 election that will end 16 years in office, while Putin, who has been in power for more than two decades, is next up for election in 2024, though he has not said whether he will run.
Merkel, 67, grew up in former Moscow-backed East Germany and speaks Russian, while Putin, 68, was based in Dresden during the Cold War as a KGB officer and speaks German.