RUSSIA

Putin rival Alexei Navalny faces six-year jail term over theft charges

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 3:17am

Russian prosecutors demanded a six-year jail sentence for anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny on theft charges yesterday, at a trial that he says is intended to sideline him as a rival to President Vladimir Putin.

Prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov did not seek the maximum 10-year sentence, but a six-year term would keep the campaigner in jail until after the next presidential election expected in 2018.

Navalny, 37, the most prominent opposition leader to be tried in post-Soviet Russia, denies charges of stealing 16 million roubles (HK$3.74 million) from a timber firm that he was advising in 2009.

Summing up for the prosecution at the end of a two-month trial in the industrial city of Kirov, 900 kilometres northeast of Moscow, Bogdanov told the Leninsky court, "The evidence considered in the trial fully proves that Navalny committed a crime."

Navalny exchanged nervous smiles with his wife Yulia. Turning to his lawyer, he said: "Overall, why be surprised? I'd expected five or six years."

He later said: "I still hope everything will be fine."

Navalny's trial is widely seen as the most significant in Russia since oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed in 2005 for fraud and tax evasion after falling out with Putin. His US$40 billion oil firm, Yukos, was broken up and sold off, mainly into state hands.

Navalny, who helped organise huge anti-Putin protests last year, has suggested the president ordered the trial to stop his criticism of what he calls a political class of "swindlers and thieves".

The Kremlin has denied using the courts for political ends.

But Navalny's lawyers say there is no evidence against him and point out the investigation had at one stage been dropped, before unexpectedly being revived. They also complain that a large number of witnesses called by the defence were not allowed to appear.

"The nature of the charges, the lack of real evidence from the prosecution, the judge's dismissal of nearly all defence motions - all this proves this trial does not satisfy the rules of justice and is aimed at only one thing: to publicly discredit and sentence a famous civic and political activist for political motives," defence lawyer Olga Mikhailova said.