KIROV, May 22 (RIA Novosti) – Russia’s beleaguered opposition figurehead, Alexei Navalny, was given a boost in his fight against controversial embezzlement charges on Wednesday when a regional governor testified in his favor.
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.
According to investigators, Navalny, then an aide to the local governor, Nikita Belykh, pressured Kirovles to sell timber to Ofitserov’s company, VLK, at below-market prices.
Navalny denies the charges and says they are revenge for his outspoken criticism of President Vladimir Putin and allegations of high-level graft in government and state-run companies. He faces ten years behind bars if found guilty.
“Could Navalny’s activities in the Kirov region have been harmful to it?” the anti-corruption crusader’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, asked Belykh in court on Wednesday.
“I have no grounds to draw this conclusion,” replied Belykh, adding that he was unable to give an “official” opinion on this as the region had not carried out an investigation into the charges.
Belykh earlier called the charges against Navalny “dubious.”
The trial entered its ninth day on Wednesday.
The investigation into the Kirovles allegations was originally opened in December 2010, but quickly closed for lack of evidence. The case was reopened shortly after Navalny dubbed Putin’s United Russia party “crooks and thieves” in February 2011, and fraud charges carrying a maximum sentence of five years were brought against him.
The case was again closed in April 2012, but swiftly reopened on the orders of Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee and a close Putin ally.
The nature of the charges, and hence the possible jail sentence, were ramped up in late July 2012, just days after Navalny accused Bastrykin of owning undeclared foreign real estate and other assets.
A Kremlin spokesman denied last month that the charges against Navalny, who recently announced plans to run for president, were political, and said Putin would not be following the trial.
However, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, an FBI-style body answerable only to Putin, admitted in April that Navalny’s high-profile “taunting” of the authorities had intensified scrutiny of his activities.
Navalny has said he fully expects to be found guilty, citing Russia’s extremely low rate of acquittals for criminal cases (less than one percent).
Police raided Navalny’s makeshift HQ in Kirov earlier this month, removing what they called “extremist” materials. Navalny supporters said the police confiscated newspapers alleging mass corruption involving Putin.