- - Wednesday, August 1, 2012

MOSCOW — When a smirking Vladimir Putin told journalists shortly before his return to the presidency in May that he would “certainly tighten the screws” on Russia’s protest leaders, no one in the opposition was entirely sure how serious the former KGB officer was.

Now they know.

This week, prosecutors charged opposition leader Alexei Navalny with large-scale embezzlement in an old case that leaves the anti-corruption activist facing up to 10 years behind bars. The move was the latest in a series of actions against leaders of the unprecedented protests against Mr. Putin that have rocked Moscow since December’s disputed parliamentary elections.

“There is no doubt that this case is politically motivated,” Mr. Navalny’s attorney, Vadim Kobzev, told The Washington Times. “There is no basis for the charges and no chance of a fair trial. Navalny is likely to get seven years.”

Mr. Navalny is a charismatic 36-year-old lawyer who made his name as a blogger exposing official graft. His relentless online mocking of Mr. Putin and other top officials was the inspiration for a rebirth of political activism in Russia after the widespread apathy of the 2000s. He has served two short jail sentences for protest-related activities in recent months.

Old case reopened

Prosecutors say Mr. Navalny’s actions, while working as an adviser to the governor of a central Russian region, caused a forestry firm to sustain losses of more than $500,000 from April through August 2009. Mr. Navalny called the charges “strange and absurd” because authorities already have investigated the accusations twice without bringing charges against him.

He was released after questioning Tuesday on a pledge not to leave Moscow. No date has been set for a trial.

The charges were filed just days after Mr. Navalny accused Alexander Bastrykin, Russia’s chief investigator, of concealing illegal foreign business interests. The accusation was the latest in a series of public potshots Mr. Navalny has taken against Mr. Bastrykin, a university classmate of Mr. Putin‘s. Mr. Bastrykin scolded prosecutors in early July for closing the case against Navalny “on the sly.” The case was reopened shortly afterward.

Opposition figures have likened the Navalny case to that of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsy, who has been in prison for almost 10 years on fraud charges that he says were revenge for his support of opposition parties. The Kremlin denies that his imprisonment was politically motivated.

‘Political repression’

“The trumped-up charges against Navalny are vivid proof of the fact that political repression is under way in Russia,” fellow protest leader Yevgenia Chirikova told The Times. “Whenever people start to open their mouths, they are immediately targeted.”

Leaders of the protest movement have faced a number of legal, business and financial problems since Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin on May 7 for a third term as president, after serving four years as prime minister.

Socialite turned dissident Ksenia Sobchak lost an appeal last month to force investigators to return about $1 million seized from her plush Moscow apartment during a raid in June. Three women from a punk-rock group face up to seven years in prison for a protest against Mr. Putin in Moscow’s biggest cathedral.

Leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov was sentenced to 240 hours of community work in July for assaulting a pro-Kremlin activist, a charge he denies.

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