MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev was charged on Wednesday with hooliganism and battery over a televised punch-up and faces up to five years in jail in what he says is revenge for criticizing President Vladimir Putin.
The 52-year-old backer of British newspapers The Independent and London’s Evening Standard, whose net worth was put at $1.1 billion by Forbes magazine in March, was also ordered by federal criminal investigators not to leave the country.
Lebedev, who owns a bank and a campaigning Russian newspaper, is rare among the so-called oligarchs in speaking out against the Kremlin and says he is a victim of a crackdown on dissent since Putin returned to the presidency in May.
He faces the same charge of hooliganism motivated by religious, political, racial, ethnic or ideological hatred as three women from the punk band Pussy Riot, who were jailed for two years in August after bursting into a Russian Orthodox church and belting out a profanity-laced anti-Putin protest.
“I know the position of the president,” Lebedev, a softly-spoken former KGB spy, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday in which he denied funding the opposition and said he had upset the Kremlin by campaigning against corruption.
“He thinks it is true that I have been funding (the opposition), so I was violating rule No. 1 - if you have money you should not interfere (in politics).”
Prosecutors opened an investigation into Lebedev last year over an incident in which he leapt out of his chair and threw a punch at property developer Sergei Polonsky, himself a one-time billionaire, during a television talk show.
He denied hitting Polonsky in the face although Polonsky fell to the floor and looked dazed.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment. He had previously said that the Kremlin had not put pressure on Lebedev or other wealthy Russians over their business interests.
Lebedev’s business interests in Russia include a bank and real estate assets; he owns a stake in state-controlled airline Aeroflot and has a potato farm.
Most rich Russians have avoided criticizing the Kremlin since the arrest in 2003 of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, after he defied Putin by taking an interest in opposition politics. Khodorkovsky’s oil empire was broken up and sold off, and he is still in prison.
But with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Lebedev co-owns the Novaya Gazeta newspaper which has for years criticized the Kremlin and exposed corruption in Russia. Four of its journalists were killed between 2001 and 2009.
He says he is a victim of increasingly aggressive tactics to silence critics since Putin returned to the presidency for a six-year term in May, following the biggest protests against him since he was first elected president in 2000.
Other steps which the opposition says have targeted them include laws increasing fines for protesters, tighter controls of foreign-funded campaign groups and tougher Internet rules.
One protest leader, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, has been charged with theft and faces up to 10 years in jail. Another, Gennady Gudkov, has been expelled from parliament and could face two years in prison on charges of continuing his business activities while a deputy. Both deny the accusations.
A source familiar with the situation said that Lebedev was charged at the start of a two-hour-long procedure.
He was asked to sign a form limiting his travel but refused, citing his legal rights, the source said, adding that Lebedev did not intend to leave Russia.
A trial is expected to start in late October, the source said.
Lebedev’s lawyer, Genri Reznik, told Ekho Moskvy radio the charges against the media magnate were “absolutely made up”.
“I believe this is revenge for Lebedev’s public activity, for his real counteraction of corruption, for publishing an opposition newspaper, for supporting Navalny ... He has many ‘sins’ (in the eyes of the Kremlin),” he said.
Lebedev says his efforts to sell off his business assets in Russia, because of pressure from the Kremlin, have so far failed because investors have been scared off by a “smear campaign”.
His National Reserve Bank was searched by security service agents in February, and he says he has been under surveillance.
His son Evgeny Lebedev, who owns the Independent and Evening Standard, said in a statement the charge was “an extraordinarily disproportionate response” to the incident in the TV studio.
“My father has been targeted because of his determination to fight against corruption and to be a crusader for democracy in a country where this has not always been welcome,” he said.
“I really hope that this does not presage a new phase of crackdowns on those who speak out against injustice.”
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Timothy Heritage,; Editing by Myra MacDonald