* 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 (Reuters) - 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 Saturday.
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.
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, it said.
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 the ban.
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.