Russian protest leader Navalny goes on trial for misappropriation

KIROV, Russia (AFP) - Charismatic Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday goes on trial on charges that he said were ordered by President Vladimir Putin in revenge for him daring to oppose the Kremlin.

Mr Navalny, who risks up to 10 years in prison in the embezzlement case, has predicted he will be convicted and possibly jailed but warned it is only a matter of time before Mr Putin falls from power.

The process is a potential turning point in the standoff between the Kremlin and the opposition that erupted with mass opposition protests in the winter of 2011-2102 ahead of Mr Putin's return for a third Kremlin term last May.

It is also just the latest trial in post-Soviet Russia to be denounced as a political show trial by the opposition, after the jailing of anti-Kremlin tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the radical punk group Pussy Riot.

The drama, however, is not being played out close to the Kremlin walls but in the provincial northern city of Kirov 900km from Moscow whose small array of hotels have been booked solid by travelling media.

The trial is due to start at 0500 GMT (1pm Singapore time) but Mr Navalny has warned it could last several months so he and his staff will be renting a flat in the city.

Mr Navalny is charged with organising the misappropriation in a timber deal of more than 16 million rubles (S$630,257) from the Kirov regional government that he advised in 2009.

Mr Navalny, 36, a fresh-faced lawyer who was quick to realise the growing political importance of the Internet in Russia, raised the stakes ahead of the trial by announcing earlier this month he wanted to stand for president.

"The system will collapse but this could still take several years. Our task is to bring this closer," he said in an interview with the published Wednesday.

The judge in the case is the deputy head of the Leninsky district court, Mr Sergei Blinov, at 35 a contemporary of Mr Navalny, who according to the New Times over the last four months handed out 25 convictions and no acquittals.

"If Navalny is sent to jail the Kremlin will have crossed a rubicon beyond which there will be an all-powerful authoritarian machine which will be hard, if not impossible, to stop," wrote the opposition New Times.

Mr Navalny emerged as by far the most eloquent of the protest leaders in the anti-Putin rallies, showing with his canny use of Moscow slang language that he is in touch with the people.

His anti-corruption campaign has won a huge following on the Internet, boldly making claims against powerful foes like Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov.

But he still faces a struggle to make an impact beyond Moscow at a national level, with polls showing that only a third of Russians have heard of who he is.

Mr Navalny's claims that the case is a political set-up were at least partially confirmed this week by the spokesman of the Investigative Committee who said the opposition leader had drawn attention to himself with his "teasing" of the Kremlin.

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