The reopening of a criminal case against opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny indicates the Kremlin wants to neutralize the threat posed by the popular blogger, his lawyer said on Friday.
“It seems like they want to remove Navalny from the political scene,” lawyer Vadim Kobzev told RIA Novosti. “The case is exclusively motivated by politics.”
Investigators say Navalny’s “corporate raiding” actions caused a forestry firm in central European Russia’s Kirov region to sustain losses of over 1 million rubles ($30,900) between April and August 2009. Navalny was working as an adviser to the region's governor at the time. He denies the charges.
Kobzev said investigators had informed Navalny in a letter that he would be formally charged with fraud on Monday. He could face five years behind bars if found guilty.
“We cannot rule out that Navalny will be taken into custody on Monday,” Kobzev said. “We are ready for anything.”
The case has been closed twice since the original probe was opened in August 2009. But it was reopened for a third time earlier this month after the head of the country’s powerful Investigation Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, hit out at subordinates for shutting down the probe “on the sly.”
The last twelve months have seen Navalny, 36, transform from an obscure anti-corruption blogger into a high-profile leader of unprecedented protests against the rule of President Vladimir Putin. He has served two short jail sentences in recent months over protest-related activities.
“If they do jail him, we will see a furious reaction from society,” Kobzev said. “The reaction will be much bigger than that that accompanied the jailing of [former Yukos head Mikhail] Khodorkovsky.”
“After all, Khodorkovsky was an oligarch and was hated by a lot of people,” he added. “But Navalny is not an oligarch and everyone will understand that this case is politically motivated.”
Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev were arrested in 2003 on fraud charges that Khodorkovsky supporters claim were revenge for his independent political activity. The Kremlin has consistently denied the allegation.
A spokesperson for Navalny said earlier on Friday that Navalny had no plans to flee Russia.
The anti-corruption activist continued to attack the authorities this week, accusing Investigation Committee chief Bastrykhin in a blog post of fraud and being a “foreign agent.”
Navalny alleged that Bastrykhin had concealed real estate and business interests in the Czech Republic and held EU residency while enjoying access to state secrets. Bastrykhin denied the allegations on Friday and said he would resign if "even one euro" in profits was discovered.
The term “foreign agent” was a reference to a controversial draft law that would force non-governmental organizations that receive money from abroad and are engaged in politics to use the term on all their publications and websites.