Russian anti-corruption activist and blogger Aleksei Navalny has been charged with embezzlement, in a sign that President Vladimir V. Putin has decided to take harsher measures against anti-government protesters. Navalny was one of the leaders of the protest movement that began last December, when tens of thousands demonstrated against Putin in Moscow.
Navalny faces a sentence of five to ten years in prison if convicted of the charges of “misappropriation or embezzlement” under Article 160 of the Russian criminal code. He was formally charged on Tuesday at the offices of the Investigative Committee (SK) in Moscow. As he told supporters who gathered outside the offices of the SK, which is Russia’s main federal body that investigates serious crimes: ”This charge is strange and absurd. They have completely changed the essence of the charge.”
A lawyer by training, Navalny is being charged over a 2009 timber deal in the Kirov region in which he was an unofficial advisor to the governor. The SK says that Navalny created a scheme to steal timber from a state-owned company, KirovLes. Investigators in the Volga region had closed the charges against Navalny earlier this year and he had received notice that he was no longer under suspicion and that his legal fees would be reimbursed.
Navalny is comparing the case against him to that made against oil magnate and Putin rival Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, who has been imprisoned on tax evasion charges since 2003. As the New York Times quoted Navalny:
“All these jokes that Khodorkovsky stole all the oil and Navalny stole all the timber, that basically reflects what has happened today. As far as I can tell, the single idea behind this is that people watching the news on the first channel can hear on the news that Navalny stole 16 million rubles.”
16 million rubles is about $500,000 and is the amount of timber that Navalny is accused of scheming to acquire, in collusion with business officials.
Navalny noted that he thought the 2009 Kirov case had been revived after a huge rally on May 6, the eve of Putin’s inauguration during which protesters and riot police clashed. Legal action against opposition figures has notably increased since Putin returned to power in March with formal charges against activists — 16 have been charged in all — one way the Kremlin is seeking to weaken the protest movement.
In June, Putin signed a new Parliamentary law that fines those who participate in rallies causing harm or death to people the equivalent of $9,000, a huge penalty considering that most people’s average salaries are $8,500.
Navalny has signed a document under which he cannot leave Russia while the charges are pending. He says that he will still continue his political work, telling AFP: ”I will continue doing what I did before – nothing has changed for me.”
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