KIROV, Russia (AFP) – Russian prosecutors on Friday sought a six-year jail sentence for top opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who vowed to never flee his country in fear and to break its “feudal system” of politics.
Judge Sergei Blinov scheduled the verdict hearing for July 18.
Observers say that the rushed embezzlement trial of President Vladimir Putin’s top critic appears to be an attempt to jail him before elections in September in which he is seeking to run for Moscow mayor.
Tensions in the stuffy courtroom in the Kirov region 600 kilometres (370 miles) northeast of Moscow escalated when the prosecutor said Navalny should be sent to a prison colony for six years and pay a fine of one million rubles ($30,000) for conspiring with co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov to steal 10,000 cubic metres of timber worth 16 million rubles.
“That would be just and proportionate,” said prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov, adding that Navalny should be arrested in the courtroom immediately after the verdict. He sought five years for Ofitserov, a businessman.
But in a speech that quickly went viral on social networks, the 37-year-old lawyer Navalny said he was not afraid of the prison sentence, vowing that he and his colleagues would “destroy the feudal system in Russia.”
“If anyone thinks that I will run away abroad somewhere and hide after hearing this threat of six years, he is very wrong,” Navalny said. “I don’t want to do anything else, I want to help the citizens of my country, to work for the people who are my compatriots.”
“I would like to call on all people like me, who have worked with me or want to work with me not to be afraid of doing it,” he said, adding that apathy “helps the disgusting feudal regime that is sitting like a spider in the Kremlin.”
Responding to the charges, Navalny said the prosecution had failed to prove any wrongdoing on his part, calling the trial “absurd”.
“I did not gain a single kopeck,” he said. “How can you steal 16 million in such a way that nobody gained any money?” Navalny asked.
Navalny stands accused of causing a loss to the budget of the northern Kirov region in a timber deal in 2009 when he acted as an unpaid advisor to the governor.
He has been leading his own defence and has argued that no one was hurt in the business deal, and that his role in the transaction was limited.
The Kirov governor — liberal-leaning veteran of politics Nikita Belykh — has testified in court as a witness for the defence.
Navalny quickly emerged as the star of the anti-Putin street protests that erupted in Moscow in late 2011, drawing huge crowds with some of the most fervent speeches against Putin’s 13-year-rule.
He has branded the ruling United Russia party “the party of crooks and thieves” — a catchphrase that became popular and was even mentioned on state television — and won a huge Internet following through his anti-corruption blog that exposed officials.
The protest leader himself has openly aspired to be president and currently is trying to register a political party called the People’s Alliance.
His national recognition, however, remains low. State television has had only meagre coverage of the trial, while a poll by the Levada Centre indicated that 30 percent of the country has never heard of Navalny.
He has first set his sights on the Moscow mayoral seat in snap elections that have been called for September 8, to run against incumbent pro-Kremlin mayor Sergei Sobyanin.
Even a suspended sentence would bar Navalny from running in elections for the duration of his conviction term.