Protest leader Alexei Navalny said on Friday he would destroy the political system under Russian President Vladimir Putin that was “sucking the blood out of Russia,” after state prosecutors demanded he be jailed for six years on theft charges.
Navalny says the trial, in the industrial city of Kirov, is intended to sideline him as a potential rival to Putin. A six-year term would keep the anti-corruption campaigner in prison until after the next presidential election, scheduled for 2018.
Navalny, the most prominent opposition leader to be tried in post-Soviet Russia, denied the charge of stealing 16 million rubles (US$482,000) from a local timber firm that he was advising in 2009 while working for the liberal Kirov region governor.
He looked shocked and exchanged nervous smiles with his wife Yulia after prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov set out the prosecution’s demands at his trial in Kirov, 900km northeast of Moscow. Judge Sergei Blinov will deliver a verdict on July 18.
Navalny, 37, later regained his composure and delivered an emotional denunciation of Russia’s political system, saying the trial had been ordered from on high — a reference to Putin — and hatched in a world of “fantasy and fairy tales.”
“I declare that my colleagues and I will do all we can to destroy this feudal system made in Russia, destroy this system of power, under which 83 percent of the country’s wealth is in the hands of half a percent of the population,” he told the court.
“Anyone who stands on the sidelines will just be helping the disgusting feudal system which sits like a spider in the Kremlin, the 100 families who are sucking the blood out of Russia,” he added.
Navalny helped organize the biggest anti-Putin protests since the former KGB spy rose to power in 2000. He has suggested the president ordered the trial to silence his criticism of what he calls a political class of “swindlers and thieves.”
He says power has been concentrated in the hands of a few people, some of who have become fabulously wealthy, largely by seizing control of raw materials or through corruption.
His trial is seen by the opposition 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.
The Kremlin denies using the courts for political ends and says it does not interfere in criminal cases.
Tall and clean-cut, Navalny has been a thorn in the side of the government and the Kremlin since starting to campaign online against state corruption in 2007.
He established himself as a powerful speaker at the anti-Putin demonstrations that flared in December 2011, although they have faded since Putin’s presidential election victory in March last year. Since then, Putin has reasserted his authority and several opposition leaders have been charged with criminal offences.