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Prosecution seeks hefty slander fine for Kremlin critic Navalny

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian state prosecutors on Tuesday asked a court to fine Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny 950,000 roubles ($13,000) for slandering a World War Two veteran, a charge he calls politically motivated.

President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic was jailed this month for almost three years for parole violations that he said were trumped up. The West has condemned the case and is discussing possible sanctions on Russia.

The judge said the verdict would be announced on Saturday - the same day that Navalny is due to appeal against his imprisonment.

The 44-year-old anti-corruption activist is accused of defaming a veteran who took part in a promotional video backing constitutional reforms last year. The reform, approved in a referendum, will let Putin run for two more terms in the Kremlin after 2024 if he wants to.

Navalny, who returned to Russia last month from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning with a military-grade nerve toxin in Siberia, described the people in the video as traitors and corrupt lackeys.

Veterans of what Moscow calls the Great Patriotic War are widely revered in Russia, and criticising them is regarded as socially unacceptable and insulting.

Navalny has said his comment was not directed specifically at the veteran, and that the authorities are using the charge to smear his reputation.

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At the hearings, he has clashed with the judge in heated exchanges and been told he could be removed from the court.

He used his closing arguments to call the case a legal nonsense. He then said it was pointless to discuss legal matters with the court and asked the judge and prosecutor if they knew a good recipe for pickled gherkins.

As the state prosecutor addressed the court to recommend a sentence, Navalny interrupted her to joke: “Execution?”

Navalny has refused in court to offer an apology to the veteran, who he said was being exploited for political ends.

In her closing arguments, the prosecutor said: “I understand perfectly well that such a punishment (a fine) for the defendant will not repair the damage caused to the victim ...

“And on behalf of the state prosecution and myself personally, I want to ... apologise (to the veteran) for such fellow citizens as the defendant.”

It had been unclear before Tuesday whether state prosecutors would seek a custodial sentence on top of a fine.

Navalny’s arrest and jailing sparked nationwide street protests in Russia, but his allies say they have now paused serious demonstrations until the spring.

Reporting by Polina Nikolskaya, Maxim Rodionov and Alexander Marrow; Writing by Andrew Osborn and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Kevin Liffey