* Anti-Putin protest leader accused of theft
* Family says authorities put pressure on Navalny
* Opposition plans march against Putin on Saturday
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, Dec 14 Russia has announced a new
criminal investigation against protest leader Alexei Navalny for
suspected fraud and money laundering, increasing pressure on the
opposition before a rally against President Vladimir Putin on
Investigators said on Friday Navalny, an anti-corruption
blogger who has been a leader of the biggest demonstrations
against Putin since he won power, and his brother Oleg were
suspected of cheating a mail transport company out of 55 million
roubles ($1.79 million).
Navalny already faces up to 10 years in jail on charges of
theft from a state timber company which he says are part of a
Kremlin campaign to discredit him and silence the opposition
since Putin's return to the presidency in May.
Navalny, 36, said the new accusations were "utter nonsense"
and his mother described them as blackmail intended to make him
halt his opposition activities.
"I don't know anything," Navalny said on his Twitter
account. "Do I understand correctly - I'm not enough for them
and now they are after my family."
Another opposition leader, leftist Sergei Udaltsov, said the
investigation was deliberately timed to coincide with a banned
opposition march on Saturday that is intended to mark 12 months
of protests against Putin.
"The federal Investigative Committee's announcement on the
eve of the march means they want to blackmail my son through his
family into not going on the march and stopping his political
activities," Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, aid.
"But I want to say that they will not succeed because the
whole family supports Alexei," she told Ekho Moskvy radio.
Moscow city authorities have refused to give the protesters
permission to march through the capital to Lubyanka Square in
central Moscow, the site of the monolithic headquarters of the
FSB security police that replaced the Soviet-era KGB.
THREAT OF JAIL
Navalny and Udaltsov risk going to jail if they ignore the
ban and lead the march, which is supposed to celebrate a year of
protests, which at their peak last winter attracted crowds of up
to 100,000 people in the capital but failed to prevent Putin
winning a six-year third term as president.
Since then, the parliament has passed a series of laws that
the opposition say are intended to stifle dissent and several
opposition leaders have faced criminal charges or investigation.
The government's federal Investigative Committee said on its
website that Oleg Navalny, an employee at state company Russian
Post Office, had concluded a deal on transporting mail with a
company created by Alexei Navalny.
It said the services were provided at a deliberately
inflated rate which enabled Navalny and his brother to rake off
55 million roubles between 2008 and 2011. Much of the money had
been spent but 19 million roubles ($619,500) had been laundered,
The statement, published under video footage of a spokesman
outlining the case which was shown repeatedly on state
television, concluded: "At the moment investigative work is
being carried out to gather additional evidence linking the
Navalny brothers to the crime."
Navalny has dismissed previous accusations against him as
politically motivated and intended to halt his campaigning
against corruption. He has ignored the pressure and pressed on
with efforts to uncover corruption by officials and state firms.
The opposition has also ignored what it sees as Kremlin
attempts to smother dissent by continuing to hold protests,
albeit less frequently than at the turn of the year and with
fewer people attending.
Opposition leaders hope to attract thousands of protesters
to Saturday's march, despite the threat of arrest. But some
could be put off by the possibility of clashes if police enforce
Several hundred people were detained after a rally turned
violent on the eve of Putin's inauguration for a new term on May
7. He has been Russia's dominant leader for nearly 13 years.
Laws passed since his return to the presidency after four
years as prime minister broaden the definition of treason,
increase the punishment for protesters who step out line, and
tighten control on the Internet and on campaign and lobby
grounds that receive foreign funding.