KIROV, April 24 (RIA Novosti) – Alexei Navalny, the man who led mass protests against the rule of President Vladimir Putin in 2011 and 2012, told a court in the central Russian city of Kirov on Wednesday that embezzlement charges that could send him to jail for up to 10 years were the Kremlin’s “revenge” and aimed at sidelining him politically.
“This case is politically motivated,” Navalny told the court in Kirov, an industrial city some 500 miles (800 kilometers) northeast of Moscow, where he is standing trial on embezzlement charges. “It is political revenge.”
Under Russian law, even a suspended sentence would leave Navalny, who recently expressed his desire to become Russia’s president, unable to run for public office.
“If you think I will be frightened off or stay quiet, you are mistaken,” Navalny told the presiding judge, Sergei Blinov, who had reprimanded the Kremlin critic over his allegation that Putin and his government were a “corrupt, occupying regime.”
“I will say what I consider necessary,” a defiant Navalny added, to the applause of many of those present in the court.
He also said the charges were payback for his investigations into high-level corruption and a campaign in the winter of 2011 that urged opposition supporters to vote for “anyone but the party of crooks and thieves” – the anti-graft activist’s popular nickname for Putin’s United Russia party – at that December’s parliamentary polls. The elections, marred by wide-scale allegations of vote fraud in favor of Putin’s party, saw a sharp decline in votes for United Russia.
The disputed polls also triggered the largest anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow since the ex-KGB officer came to power in Russia in 2000, and turned Navalny into the undisputed figurehead of the nascent protest movement.
However, currently, just 37 percent of Russians know who Navalny is, according to a survey taken last month by the independent Levada Center. Of those, only 14 percent said they would consider voting for him in presidential elections. (The poll was conducted March 22-25 among 1,601 respondents with a margin of error up to 3.4 percent.)
Navalny and a former political ally, Kirov businessman Pyotr Ofitserov, are charged with heading a criminal group that investigators say embezzled 16 million rubles’ ($500,000) worth of timber from state-run company Kirovles in central Russia’s Kirov Region in 2009. Both men deny the charges. Ofitserov called the accusations “absurd,” in court on Wednesday. Navalny has repeatedly said he expects a guilty verdict, citing Russia’s extremely low rate of acquittals in criminal cases (less than 1 percent).
Wednesday’s court hearing came a week after Judge Blinov adjourned the trial to give Navalny’s defense more time to study case materials.
Both Navalny and his lawyers said on Wednesday the state prosecutor had provided no clear evidence for any wrongdoing. Navalny suggested the investigators who had compiled the case should face prosecution.
He also pointed out that the case had already been closed once for lack of evidence.
See a timeline and details of the charges here.
Navalny’s trial is seen by many in Russia’s splintered opposition movement as an indication of how far the Kremlin is prepared to go with what they call a crackdown on dissent. A number of protest figures have been jailed or charged since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, but the imprisonment of the opposition’s most vibrant figure would, they say, signal a new stage in the clampdown.
“If the authorities are rational, they will give him a suspended sentence,” Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst who sympathizes with the protest movement, told RIA Novosti this month.
“If they jail him, this will indicate that they are both vengeful and irrational, and moving toward Soviet-style repression.”
A spokesman for Putin said last week that the president had no plans to follow the trial.