MOSCOW, December 14 (RIA Novosti) – Russian whistleblower and opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg were accused on Friday of defrauding an unspecified firm of 55 million rubles ($1.8 million) in phony shipping charges.
The case against Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who has accused state officials of embezzling billions of rubles, comes a day ahead of a banned opposition rally that Navalny endorsed.
The Navalnys face up to 10 years if charged and convicted of large-scale fraud and money laundering, the Investigative Committee said on its website.
In 2008, an unnamed trade company signed a contract with a shipping company created by Alexei Navalny to handle its shipments, the committee said.
The unnamed company was “tricked” into the contract by Oleg Navalny, who is first deputy director of the state-owned express shipping service EMS Russian Post, the report said.
Though Navalny’s company only shipped 31 million rubles’ ($1 million) worth of goods from Yaroslavl to Moscow in 2008-2011, it billed the unnamed company for 55 million rubles, the committee said.
Oddly, the committee put the damages at 55 million rubles, even though 31 million of the sum was alleged to be legally earned payment for actually shipped goods. The contradiction could not be immediately explained.
About 19 million rubles of the allegedly embezzled sum was laundered through a wicker-weaving plant co-founded by the Navalny brothers and their father, the committee said.
The workplace of Oleg Navalny and the wicker-weaving plant were both searched on Friday, a committee spokesman said.
“This is HELL. Complete nonsense. Complete!” Alexei Navalny wrote on Twitter on Friday.
“I see that I alone am not enough, so they’re cracking down on my family?” Navalny tweeted. He added that he learned about the case from the internet, a statement echoed by his spokeswoman and lawyers in comments to RIA Novosti.
Oleg Navalny did not return a request for comment left through the EMS’ press service in time for publication. EMS said in a statement it had no complaints about his work performance and denied having anything to do with the case.
The committee did not say what evidence it has in the case, but the allegations are not new: they were first reported in July by low-profile pro-Kremlin blogger Konstantin Shepelin, who cited Alexei Navalny’s mail earlier leaked by hackers. Navalny said at the time that some of the leaked mails were falsified, but gave no specifics.
This is the second criminal case against Alexei Navalny: He faces another 10 years behind bars on accusations of misappropriating state-owned timber worth 16 million rubles during his tenure as an unpaid advisor to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh, a former opposition activist. Investigators searched the Navalnys' wicker-weaving plant in August as part of that probe.
The timber case was closed by the Investigative Committee in 2010, but reopened this year after Navalny accused committee chief Alexander Bastrykin of being a “foreign agent” because he allegedly owed a business and had a permanent residence permit in the Czech Republic. Bastrykin denied the accusations.
Navalny, 36, made a name for himself through corruption exposes, the most high-profile being the case of the state-owned oil pipeline operator Transneft, which he accused of embezzling $4 billion during construction of the Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean oil pipeline in 2006-2009. The law enforcement officials said there was no evidence of embezzlement at Transneft.
Navalny’s anti-graft website RosPil claims to have prevented embezzlement of 40 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) on state tenders since its inception in 2010.
Navalny has also been among the leaders of mass anti-Kremlin protests ongoing in Moscow since last December. His house was searched after a rally in May ended in clashes between protesters and police, but no charges followed.
After City Hall refused earlier this week to sanction a new rally in central Moscow on Saturday, Navalny was among those who called on protesters to show up in defiance of the ban.