Russian opposition leader served with criminal charge

MOSCOW Tue Jul 31, 2012 5:59am EDT

Prominent anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks to the media after arriving at the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation in Moscow July 31, 2012. REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresensky

Prominent anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks to the media after arriving at the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation in Moscow July 31, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mikhail Voskresensky

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian investigators charged opposition blogger and protest leader Alexei Navalny with theft on Tuesday, threatening one of President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken opponents with a 10-year jail sentence.

The federal Investigative Committee said in a statement that Navalny had been charged over the theft of timber from a state firm while he was advising a regional governor in 2009, and ordered him to stay in Russia.

The charges followed a series of moves since Putin began a new six-year term as president in May which opponents depict as a crackdown on dissent.

"I have been charged and ordered not to leave," Navalny, 36, said after emerging from the Investigative Committee headquarters in Moscow.

"This is really quite absurd and very strange because they have completely changed the essence of the accusation, compared to what it was before," he told reporters.

Lawyers for Navalny said on Friday they expected he would be charged over the case in the Kirov province, which was first opened in 2010. But they had expected him to face a different charge punishable by up to five years in jail.

Navalny, a lawyer, said on Twitter that he could now face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

He was among the leaders of large anti-Putin protests prompted by allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election last December that was won by Putin's United Russia party.

The recent moves which the opposition says are part of a crackdown on dissent include passage of a law increasing fines for protesters who step out of line and a tightening of controls on foreign-funded campaign and lobby groups.

Navalny has been detained and served brief terms in custody several times over administrative offences linked to the protests, which at times attracted more than 100,000 people and undermined Putin's authority. But he had never been charged with a more serious crime.

(Reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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