Protest leader says trial is a clampdown by Putin

Reuters, KIROV, Russia

Thu, Apr 18, 2013 - Page 7

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny accused the authorities of laying trumped-up charges against him at the start of his trial yesterday, which he says is part of a clampdown on the opposition by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The anti-corruption blogger was calm and defiant in a 40-minute appearance in court in the provincial city of Kirov, before Judge Sergei Blinov adjourned proceedings until April 24 to give the defense more time to prepare its case.

Navalny, 36, could face 10 years in jail if convicted of stealing 16 million rubles (US$511,000) from a timber firm in Kirov in 2009, while working for the liberal regional governor.

He did not make any defiant statement to the judge, but told reporters after the hearing was adjourned: “The case is totally falsified, trumped up. I am completely innocent.”

Reiterating his belief that the court will convict him regardless of the evidence, he said: “I am sure that during the court hearings my innocence will be proven, but let’s see what decision the judge makes.”

Navalny is the most prominent opposition leader to be tried since anti-Putin protests began 16 months ago and some critics have drawn parallels with the Soviet authorities’ persecution of political rivals.

The protests have faded, but rallies were planned in Navalny’s support in Moscow and Kirov yesterday, although it is not clear whether he has much backing or sympathy among the wider public.

The anti-corruption blogger chatted casually with reporters as he entered the court in the city of Kirov, 900km northeast of Moscow, wearing an open-necked shirt and no tie or jacket.

His wife, Yulia, was in the packed, newly redecorated courtroom, as was Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

“I really value your presence here,” Navalny told a host of reporters in the Leninsky Court, asking whether they had spent the night in a nearby cafe to ensure they got into the small courtroom.

He took a picture of the courtroom with his mobile phone and posted it to a following of about 345,000 Twitter users online. Proceedings then got under way, with the judge asking Navalny to confirm his identity.

Navalny says the trial in Kirov, a drab city dominated by square and grey Soviet-era buildings, is intended to increase pressure on the opposition following Putin’s return to the Kremlin last May after four years as prime minister.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied that the president uses the courts for political ends and says the Kremlin leader will not be following the trial.

Navalny started campaigning against state corruption in 2007 and emerged as the most powerful speaker during rallies last year calling for an end to Putin’s long domination of Russia.