Putin's former judo partner says he owns palace which opposition links to Russian leader

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian businessman Arkady Rotenberg said on Saturday he owns a huge palace in southern Russia which jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny has linked to President Vladimir Putin.

Russian businessman Arkady Rotenberg reacts before a ceremony to award constructors of the Crimean Bridge over the Kerch Strait in Sevastopol, Crimea March 18, 2020. Alexander Nemenov/Pool via REUTERS/Files

Navalny and his anti-corruption foundation have published a video in which they allege the opulent mansion belonged to the Russian leader. The video has been viewed more than 103 million times.

Rotenberg, Putin’s former judo sparring partner who sold his stake in gas pipeline construction firm Stroygazmontazh in 2019 for a sum which RBC business daily put at some 75 billion roubles ($990 million), said he bought the palace two years ago.

“Now it will no longer be a secret, I am the beneficiary,” Rotenberg said in a video published by Mash channel in Telegram. “There was a rather complicated facility, there were a lot of creditors, and I managed to become the beneficiary.”

He gave no further financial details of the purchase or how it had been funded.

Putin has already denied ownership of the palace.

Navalny was remanded in custody for 30 days on Jan. 18 for parole violations he says were trumped up and could face years in jail. He was arrested after flying back to Moscow from Germany, where he had been recovering from a nerve agent poisoning last August.

After Navalny’s arrest thousands of people joined unsanctioned protests across Russia last Saturday to demand the Kremlin release Navalny from jail.

Navalny’s supporters plan to hold further protest rallies across Russia this Sunday. Authorities have said they are illegal and have vowed to break them up.

Rotenberg was among the Russian officials and business executives blacklisted by the United States and other Western powers in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

Russian police on Saturday detained Sergey Smirnov, editor-in-chief of independent media outlet Mediazona, in Moscow on suspicion of taking part in last weekend’s Moscow protest, Mediazona said on Saturday.

($1 = 75.7500 roubles)

Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov; Additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya; Writing by Maxim Rodionov; Editing by David Holmes