KIROV, Russia (Reuters) - Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny accused President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday of seeking “political revenge” against him after a court refused to throw out what he says are trumped-up charges.
On day two of his trial on theft charges that are punishable by up to 10 years in jail, the anti-corruption campaigner and protest organizer said Judge Sergei Blinov was biased. Navalny urged Blinov to recuse himself and send the charges back to state prosecutors for review.
The judge rejected both demands and pressed on with a trial in the drab industrial city of Kirov which Navalny says is part of a clampdown on the opposition since Putin’s return to the presidency last May.
“First, this is political revenge for my and my foundation’s investigations in the fight against corruption,” Navalny, 36, told a packed courtroom after the judge announced his decisions.
“Second, it is political revenge for my and my supporters’ campaign to ‘Vote for any party except United Russia’,” he said, referring to his opposition to Putin’s party that he has branded “swindlers and thieves”.
Addressing the judge calmly and clearly, and occasionally turning to face the court, he said: “The most important purpose of this case is to squeeze me out of the legal political arena.”
Navalny, an organizer of the biggest protests since Putin rose to power 13 years ago, is accused of stealing 16 million roubles ($500,000) from a timber firm that he was advising in 2009 while working for the liberal Kirov regional governor.
The most prominent opposition leader to be tried in post-Soviet Russia, Navalny says he has done nothing wrong but is convinced he will not receive a fair trial.
“WITCH-HUNT” AGAINST OPPONENTS
Even a suspended sentence would bar him from elections, although opinion polls show little support for him outside big cities, meaning his ability to challenge Putin now is limited.
The Kremlin denies interfering with the judiciary or clamping down on opponents to crush dissent.
But two human rights groups issued damning reports on Putin’s first year back as president. Amnesty International accused him of a witch-hunt against public dissenters and Human Rights Watch described the toughest crackdown on opposition since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
Tall and clean-cut, Navalny has been a thorn in the side of the government since starting to campaign online against state corruption in 2007. He established himself as a powerful speaker at anti-Putin demonstrations that flared 16 months ago.
Although the rallies drew tens of thousands of demonstrators at their peak, Putin won almost two-thirds of votes in the presidential election in March last year, and the protests against his long rule have dwindled since then.
The trial in Kirov, about 550 miles northeast of Moscow, began on April 17 but was adjourned until Wednesday to give the defense more time to prepare.
Many Russians say political life in the former Soviet superpower is so riddled with corruption that it is hard to believe Navalny is any better than the rest.
“I think it’s more likely that he made some extra money for himself here, just stole it. I don’t think it’s political at all,” said a Kirov housewife who gave her name only as Anya.
Others are simply not interested in the fate of a man who has failed to strike a chord with the millions of people in the provinces. Navalny is rarely shown on state television, the main source of news for many, except when portrayed in a bad light.
Since Putin’s return to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister, two members of the dissident band Pussy Riot have been jailed, a prominent protest leader has been thrown out of parliament and another is under house arrest.
A dozen protesters also face sentences of up to 10 years over clashes with police at a rally on the eve of Putin’s inauguration last May. Parliament has pushed through tough new penalties and fines for demonstrators who stray out of line.
Some supporters have drawn comparisons between Navalny and jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2005 after falling out with Putin.
In a newspaper column on Wednesday, Khodorkovsky said the charges against Navalny “would not stand up in an honest and fair court - their political motivation is obvious”.
“The aim is to frighten and demoralize opponents and politically active voters, to cast peaceful civilian protest and the struggle for power through constitutional means as something marginal and extremist,” he wrote in the daily Vedomosti.
($1 = 31.6520 Russian roubles)
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, writing by Timothy Heritage, editing by Mark Heinrich