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MOSCOW: Russian investigators charged popular protest leader Alexei Navalny yesterday with embezzlement in an old case that may put one of President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critics in jail for 10 years.
The Investigative Committee said in a statement that Navalny would also be barred from leaving Moscow during a probe into the opposition leader’s time as an unofficial adviser to a small deal struck by a regional government in 2009.
The charismatic 36-year-old corporate lawyer by profession looked pale as he came out of closed hearings during which the charges against him were expanded substantially to include some of Russia’s gravest business crimes.
“Something absolutely absurd and very strange has happened because they have completely changed the story behind the charge,” the prominent anti-corruption blogger said.
“I cannot imagine how the investigators can prove this. But probably they will prove it.”
Navalny was already a cult figure with Russia’s growing internet community for his campaign against state corruption when he helped to spearhead the wave of protests that rocked the Kremlin during the winter months.
He has since emerged as one of the most prominent leaders of a splintered protest movement that has faced new challenges from authorities since Putin’s disputed third presidential term began in May.
Several top protest organisers are being investigated on various charges. The newest ones against Navalny concerned a small business deal that was struck by a regional government he advised three years ago.
The case had been probed and dropped in the past. But Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee chief, Alexander Bastrykin, personally demanded a review of the case last month in comments broadcast on state TV news.
Investigators had originally accused Navalny of causing the regional budget a loss of 1.3 million roubles (R327 550) by advising a local state-owned timber firm to conclude a deal for another small company in 2009-2010.
Navalny was not accused of profiting personally in the case, but of misleading the local governor, who he advised on an informal basis. The charges released yesterday showed that the budget’s loss had soared to 16 million roubles. – Sapa-AFP