Russia has opened a second criminal investigation into the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, one day before he was due to lead thousands in an anti-Kremlin rally.
Investigators accuse Navalny, and his brother Oleg, of stealing 55m roubles (£1.1m) from a trading company.
“So am I to understand, that I’m no longer enough and now they’re going after my family?” Navalny wrote on Twitter. He later called the accusations “total nonsense”.
Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and blogger (video), has spearheaded the growing opposition to Vladimir Putin, exposing corrupt practices inside the government and attacking officials with venomous wit via his popular social media accounts.
He has already been accused of embezzlement in a case dating back to his work as an adviser to a regional governor in 2009. He and his supporters believe the charges, which carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years, are an attempt to pressure the activist to give up his opposition activities.
Instead, Navalny has redoubled his efforts to reveal corruption at the heart of the Russian state. He has accused Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s FBI-style Investigative Committee and a close Putin ally, of owning secret property abroad. Bastrykin’s agency has opened both investigations into Navalny. Bastrykin met Putin on Thursday evening, hours before announcing the new criminal case.
The case came the day before Navalny was due to take to the streets in the opposition’s latest attempt to channel urban middle class anger at the alleged corruption of the Putin regime and its crackdown on human rights and freedom of expression.
For the first time, the opposition has vowed to march despite the fact it was denied permission for a legal rally by the mayor’s office. Thousands are expected to gather to march on Lubyanka, the imposing headquarters of the Soviet-era KGB and its successor, the FSB, on Saturday.
Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, spoke out for the first time on Friday after both her sons were targeted, telling the liberal radio station Echo Moskvy: “There can be no coincidence. The Investigative Committee’s statement on the eve of the Freedom March shows they want to blackmail my son via his family, so he won’t go to the march, so Alexey will stop his political activity.
“But I want to say that they won’t get what they want – because the whole family supports Alexey,” she said.
Opposition to Putin persists despite a widespread crackdown launched after the longtime leader officially returned to the presidency in May. Dozens have been arrested, including protesters who took part in a rally that turned violent on the eve of Putin’s inauguration. The country’s parliament has also rushed through a host of new laws designed to curtail protest.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the 85-year-old doyenne of Russia’s human rights community, warned against attending Saturday’s protests, anticipating violence. “When the authorities behave aggressively, we must behave otherwise,” she wrote.
“As long as our actions are peaceful, we have the moral high ground over the authorities – in the eyes of our fellow citizens and in the eyes of the world. We cannot lose this advantage.”