Putin's men stop at nothing in bid to silence Alexei Navalny

Persecution of Russian anti-corruption campaigner harks back to the dark days of Stalin

(Image credit: Getty Images)

ONE of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics is facing a new criminal investigation the day after he went on trial accused of embezzlement, a charge he and his supporters claim is "blatantly fabricated" and politically motivated.

Anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny appeared in court yesterday in Kirov, 550 miles east of Moscow, accused of theft in relation to a 2009 timber deal. He faces up to ten years in jail if convicted.

But only hours after the Kirov court adjourned to give the defence more time to study the case, it was announced today that Navalny is now the subject of a new criminal investigation for fraud dating back to 2008. The announcement came from Russia's Investigative Committee, which answers directly to Putin.

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Navalny reacted on Twitter by saying that it proved his trip to Kirov had been "successful" in rattling Putin's administration.

His spokeswoman, Anna Veduta, told Bloomberg: "These allegations are absurd... This is their reaction to the massive public support that we're receiving."

Although many Russians do not know who Navalny is because he is given no exposure by state-controlled media, he has become a celebrity among young, internet-savvy, anti-Putin campaigners. Yahoo News describes him as "the most prominent opposition leader to be tried in post-Soviet Russia".

Many of those who took part in the protests against Putin after his re-election last March were inspired by Navalny, explains Daniel Sandford of the BBC. "He has become a threat to the Russian political establishment. He has hit them where it hurts, by exposing the extraordinary levels of corruption in their ranks. He has written about it with savage ferocity laced with poisonous sarcasm."

Navalny's persecution by the Russian authorities is "a profoundly depressing throwback to the Soviet dark age", says an editorial in The Times, claiming the charges against him "are flimsy and largely manufactured".

But his chances of escaping a conviction are slim. "The national conviction rate is currently more than 99 per cent, higher than it was in Stalin's time, and the lead judge in the case is on a run of 130 straight convictions," notes The Times.

Earlier this week Radio Free Europe blogger Brian Whitmore compared Navalny's trial to that of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 and said it could become an "era-defining event". Khodorkovsky also took Putin to task over corruption and is currently serving a jail term for fraud. He is not due to be released until 2017.

Whitmore says the treatment of Navalny, like that of the anti-establishment punk band Pussy Riot, has exposed a regime that is "exhausted, frightened, and increasingly desperate".

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