KIROV, Russia (Reuters) - Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny is so sure President Vladimir Putin wants him convicted in a trial starting on Wednesday that he has already packed a jail bag with sneakers, jogging pants and slippers.
He expects he will also need shoes without laces under legal procedures if or when he is taken into custody after the trial in the freshly spruced-up Leninsky Court in the provincial city of Kirov, 900 km (550 miles) northeast of Moscow.
The anti-corruption blogger, 36, is the most prominent opposition leader to be tried since anti-Putin protests began 16 months ago. He could be jailed for 10 years if convicted of stealing 16 million roubles ($510,000) from a timber firm he was advising in 2009 while working for Kirov’s liberal governor.
Supporters portray the trial in Kirov - a drab city which is dominated by square and grey Soviet-era buildings and whose streets are covered with mud after the spring thaw - as the culmination of a clampdown on dissent by Putin since he returned to the presidency last May after four years as prime minister.
“I think it’s clear to any objective observer that I‘m not guilty,” Navalny told Reuters in his Moscow office before heading to Kirov. But he added: “I am absolutely certain that it will end in a conviction for me.”
Navalny accuses Putin of orchestrating the trial and says the best he can expect is a suspended sentence which would keep him out of elections - he hinted this month that he might like one day to be Russia’s president.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined comment but has denied the president uses the courts for political ends. Distancing Putin from the case, he says the Kremlin leader will not be following the trial.
“If there is no proof, he will be acquitted,” said Konstantin Zaitsev, the senior official at the court, denying it had come under pressure to deliver a pre-determined verdict.
Navalny has strong backing among the middle class and urban youth in Moscow who flocked to the anti-Putin rallies he helped organize in Moscow last year. At times they drew tens of thousands of people demanding en end to Putin’s long rule.
But his support base is weaker outside big cities and Putin sees little political risk in making an example of Navalny to discourage other dissenters. Conservative voters - Putin’s traditional support base - could welcome a jail sentence after opposing protests that had little resonance in the provinces.
“I trust the courts. If they’re putting him on trial, he’s apparently guilty,” pensioner Lyubov Chuprakova said in Kirov, named after a communist whose 1934 assassination was used by dictator Josef Stalin as a pretext for mass purges.
Another pensioner, Nikolai Makarov, said: “I don’t know what has he done exactly, but those court cases don’t just get opened over nothing.”
Navalny says he knew he could one day go to jail when he started his online campaigning against state corruption in 2007.
The campaign struck a chord when Navalny labelled the ruling United Russia a party of “swindlers and thieves” and he harnessed a mood change among urban youth against Putin’s political domination during last year’s protests.
But he has made powerful enemies and undermined Putin’s promises to crack down on corruption. His strong oratory at rallies also make him a potent rival and his brief spell working for Kirov’s independent governor, Nikita Belykh, won him few friends in Moscow’s political establishment.
Navalny, who listed the contents of his jail bag in an article he wrote for a Russian magazine, says the case against him is politically motivated, noting it had been dropped a year ago but reopened before he was charged in July.
He said he believed the intention was to intimidate but he carried on with his opposition work and the last straw may have been when he organized a rally outside the headquarters of the Soviet KGB’s successor agency in Moscow.
The anti-Putin protests have faded and parliament has passed a series of laws which opponents say are intended to stifle the opposition, such as increasing fines for protesters.
But opposition activists plan to protest in support of Navalny in Moscow and Kirov on Wednesday. Some will travel to Kirov to support him.
Navalny says he has increasingly been thinking about the fate of jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in 2003 and convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005.
Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky saw his business empire dismantled and sold off, much of it to allies of Putin, after falling out of favor with the president. ($1 = 31.3657 Russian roubles)
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, writing by Timothy Heritage, editing by Mark Heinrich