Blogger on Trial: Putin Adversary Faces Long Prison Term
Blogger Alexei Navalny, a leading figure in Russia's opposition movement, helped to deprive President Vladimir Putin's party of its two-thirds majority in the 2011 parliamentary election. Now he's on trial for embezzlement, and even investigators aren't hiding the fact that the case is politically motivated.
A court notice succinctly summarized the showdown that kicked off in the Russian provincial town of Kirov on Wednesday: The first hearing in the Lenin District Court in the case against the accused, Navalny, Alexei Anatolievich, born in 1976.
Navalny and his legal team arrived in court on Wednesday and requested that the trial be delayed a month, saying they had not been given sufficient time to prepare. The judge agreed to postpone it for one week, calling for the trial to reconvene on April 24.
The charge against the great hope of the Russian opposition is embezzlement. According to the state prosecutor, Navalny in 2009 exploited his position as advisor to the governor of the Kirov region and earned money through dubious dealings -- 16 million rubles, the equivalent of 400,000 ($528,000).
But the defence sees a political conspiracy, initiated by the Kremlin with the aim of neutralizing a competitor. Navalny made his name as an Internet blogger campaigning against corruption. For years he has been uncovering embezzlement and criminal deal-making in state-owned companies.
During the Russian parliamentary election of 2011, Navalny gained nationwide attention with his slogan "No vote for the party of crooks and thieves." He was referring to United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin, whose functionaries and deputies are seen by many as chronically corrupt. The slogan struck a chord with many people. United Russia lost more than 10 million votes and no longer has a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Fighter for the Opposition
After the election, Navalny became a leading figure in the mass demonstrations that followed. Tens of thousands of Moscow residents protested in the winter of 2011-2012 against election rigging and the return of Putin's regime. And if there was one figurehead the diverse crowd of democratically-minded intellectuals and students, nationalists and neo-communists could have agreed on, it would have been Navalny.
Navalny didn't just talk big -- he didn't shirk from confronting state authority. Many found that impressive. As a lawyer, he went up against state corporations. And during protests, he often stayed so long that he was led away by police.
The protests have subsided, and the Kremlin, aided by its propaganda machine, has defeated the opposition in all subsequent elections, despite Navalny's charisma. He recently declared his intention to run in the next presidential election.
His blogging has continued unabated. He recently revealed which United Russia parliamentarians own expensive properties abroad, especially in the United States. Three of them were forced to resign.
The indictment in Kirov is essentially the Kremlin's revenge. The case is under the auspices of the Investigative Committee of Russia, which is the equivalent of the American FBI. The chairman of the organization is a man named Alexander Bastrykin. Last summer, Navalny accused Bastrykin of concealing real estate holdings and a residence permit in the Czech Republic and called on the Kremlin to sack him. But the chief investigator is a former classmate of Putin's and belongs to his circle of friends.
The trial had not yet begun when a spokesman of the Investigative Committee described Navalny in an interview as a "crook." Navalny has "drawn attention to himself and challenged the power of the state with all his strength," said spokesman Sergei Markin -- a thinly-veiled admission that politics is playing a larger role here than the actual offense.
The accusations against Navalny date back to 2009. Kirov had become a mecca for Kremlin opponents. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev had appointed former opposition leader Nikita Belykh as regional governor in Kirov. Maria Gaidar, the daughter of former prime minister and economic reformer Yegor Gaidar, was vice-governor, and Alexei Navalny was Belykh's advisor.
The prosecution accuses Navalny of using this position to his own financial advantage. It's alleged that he and a partner founded the company WLK and then pressured the state-run timber company "Kirovles - Kirov Forest" to sell the firm 10,000 cubic meters of wood below market price.
Navalny maintains his innocence. He says he was not involved with WLK. He was simply trying to rehabilitate Kirovles, which at that point was the equivalent of 5.4 million in debt because employees had been selling wood off the books for their own benefit.
The main witness for the prosecution is the former director of Kirovles, Vyacheslav Opalev. Last year, Opalev confessed to embezzling 16 million rubles. He reached an agreement with the investigators and was sentenced to four years probation. Nawalny believes that the investigators promised Opalev leniency in exchange for his cooperation.
Should Navalny be convicted, his political career could be over before it begins. President Putin recently introduced a bill in the Russian parliament, the Duma, that prohibits people with criminal records from standing in elections.
The head of the district court in Kirov has given a strong hint that Navalny faces a conviction. An acquittal, says Judge Konstantin Zaitsev, is "seven times more difficult than a conviction." He himself has "never yet made a single acquittal."
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