x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Alexei Navalny faces criminal investigation as Putin cracks down on dissent

The young corruption-fighting lawyer and blogger has played a key role in rallying Russia's young internet generation against Mr Putin's rule.

Prominent anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been charged with a financial crime punishable by prison.
Prominent anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been charged with a financial crime punishable by prison.

MOSCOW // Alexei Navalny, a driving force behind massive protests against Vladimir Putin's rule, faced a new criminal investigation yesterday on charges of theft that come amid a widening Kremlin crackdown on dissent.

Mr Navalny rejected the charges, which carry a 10-year prison term if he is convicted and follow the recent jailing of opposition activists and the passage of new repressive legislation.

The State Investigative Committee said yesterday that it suspects Mr Navalny of organising a scheme to steal assets from a state timber company totalling 16 million roubles (Dh1.84m). He was ordered not to leave the city. Mr Navalny called the charges "weird" and baseless.

Over the winter, the charismatic and energetic Mr Navalny spearheaded a series of opposition rallies in Moscow that drew up to 100,000 to the streets ahead of the March vote in which Mr Putin won a third presidential term. The 36-year-old corruption-fighting lawyer and popular blogger, who has over 270,000 followers on Twitter and reached tens of thousands through his blog, has played a key role in rallying Russia's young internet generation against Mr Putin's rule.

The Kremlin fired back after the election with a series of arrests of opposition activists. Parliament, controlled by Mr Putin's loyalists, also rushed through a bill that raised fines 150-fold for those taking part in unsanctioned protests. Another bill passed this month requires non-governmental groups receiving funding from abroad and engaging in political activity to register as foreign agents.

In another demonstration of a tougher line on dissent, three Russian feminist rockers went on trial for performing a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral against Mr Putin's return as president on charges that carry a punishment of up to seven years in prison.

The inquiry against Mr Navalny is focusing at events dating back to 2009 when he served as an adviser to a provincial governor. Investigators allege that he colluded with timber company officials to rob it. It follows a previous probe into similar allegations, which was closed earlier this year.

The investigation committee's chief Alexander Bastrykin has recently chided a local investigator for closing that case.

mr Navalny, who owes his popularity to investigating rampant official corruption, targeted Mr Bastrykin this week, claiming that the chief investigator has obtained Czech residency permit and bought an apartment in Prague. Mr Bastrykin defended himself in an interview with the daily Izvestia, admitting that he bought the apartment but denying having the residency permit.

Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, expressed concern over fresh charges against Mr Navalny. "We should be concerned with attempts in Russia to silence fierce opposition activist Alexei Navalny," he tweeted.