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24 Apr, 2013 10:45

Opposition leader Navalny goes on trial, claims case 'politically motivated'

Opposition leader Navalny goes on trial, claims case 'politically motivated'

Anti-corruption blogger, and a leading figure in the opposition movement, Aleksey Navalny faces another round of court hearings in his case. Charged with embezzling state funds, he pleaded not guilty, claiming the case is “politically motivated.”

“The case is absolutely political and it is fabricated. I am confident that my innocence will be proved and clear to everyone present in this hall, and also to all citizens who find it interesting to understand the case,” Navalny said at the session that started Wednesday in the provincial town of Kirov.

One of the most active and popular Russian opposition figures, Navalny is suspected in defrauding the Kirovles state owned timber company of 16 million roubles (over $500,000) in 2009 when he worked as a voluntary aide to regional governor Nikita Belykh.

If convicted Navalny could face up to 10 years in prison. Judge Sergey Blinov has scheduled the court hearings up to May 30 which suggests there will not be a verdict before June.

The investigation was shuttered twice due to lack of evidence, however appeared to be reopened just recently.  

Now Navalny claims the case still lacks enough evidence, saying that no “finance, accounting or economic” expertise has been made despite his defense’ repeated requests. 

Opposition leader and blogger Aleksey Navalny at Kirov's Lenin District Court. (RIA Novosti / Ramil Sitdikov)

One of the main arguments that Navalny and his defense are insisting on is that the charges against him are mostly based on the confession of the former head of Kirovles, Vyacheslav Opalev. He had already been tried for embezzlement but entered a plea deal and received a four years suspended sentence.

“This is really an astonishing thing [happening] because they do base the charges only on his evidence,” Navalny earlier told Russian Dozhd TV channel. 

“We will demand the expertise and of course we would like to see that person, who told the investigation that I am guilty, that I am a horrible thief and so on,” he said.

In the courtroom Navalny also spoke at length that he “does not understand” how is that possible that the case that have been closed is now in court again “with the same evidence.”  

“This case, with all the same evidence was closed and I had an official note that the criminal proceedings against me were stopped and that I have a right for a compensation of all my expenses,” Navalny said.

“Nothing new emerged in this case, no new evidence, no new prove, not even new witness account, but nevertheless, previously closed case is now being heard in court again.” 

Kirov's Lenin District Court resumed hearing of the Kirovles embezzlement case. (RIA Novosti / Ramil Sitdikov)

One more person is a suspect in the case – Petr Ofitserov who was heading the company that was allegedly signing false contracts with Kirovles on Navalny’s instructions.

At the Wednesday hearing the defense lawyers asked for the case to be returned to prosecutors as it allegedly lacked the full list of evidence and some figures were mixed up in the sum of the material damages. The judge turned down the appeal.

The defense also demanded the judge to be replaced saying that the current judge is not free and independent.

However, the judge, who had to decide on his own replacement ruled not to agree the appeal as the

“listed reasons were badly founded.” The blogger said that he had no doubt that the process would end in a conviction.

“I understand there has been “an instruction” to convict me. I am not optimistic about the trial and I understand: anyway there will be a guilty verdict,” Navalny told the Dozhd TV channel on April, 17, the day when the first hearing was postponed.

Navalny is a trained lawyer (though his opponents question the attorney record that he presented to officially receive this status) with a long history of political work. His allegiances included the veteran pro-democracy Yabloko party, nationalist movements (he himself founded one) and modern pro-market liberals, such as governor Belykh.

The most successful of Navalny’s projects was likely his own blog and the RosPil website, where he uncovered various incidents of corruption and called for a struggle against Russia’s parliamentary majority party United Russia, which the blogger labeled the “party of crooks and thieves.”

In recent time Navalny’s name was often associated with the wave of Russian opposition protests that started in December of 2011. The People’s Alliance political party is claiming Navalny as their leader. The party is currently undergoing registration and Navalny says he is neither the official leader nor even a member of the group.

At the same time, despite intensive media coverage of the trial Navalny’s popularity among ordinary people is still average – he is not even the most well-known of the opposition figures.

According to the latest poll conducted by the VTSIOM public opinion center only 53 percent of Russians know about Navalny and 47 percent admitted that the name did not ring any bells.