KIROV, April 17 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti) – The start of the high-profile trial of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who led last year's mass protests against President Vladimir Putin's rule, was adjourned on Wednesday after just 40 minutes.
Judge Sergei Blinov postponed the trial until April 24 after Navalny's defense team asked for more time to study the case materials.
"I am innocent," a defiant Navalny told journalists and supporters outside the court in the city of Kirov, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) from Moscow. He also called the case against him "trumped-up."
Navalny, 36, has repeatedly said, however, that he expects a guilty verdict, citing Russia's extremely low rate of acquittals in criminal cases (less than 1 percent).
He faces up to 10 years behind bars if found guilty.
Navalny and a former political ally, Kirov businessman Pyotr Ofitserov, are charged with heading a criminal group that investigators say embezzled 16 million rubles’ ($500,000) worth of timber from state-run company Kirovles in central Russia’s Kirov Region in 2009.
According to investigators, Navalny, then an aide to the local governor, pressured Kirovles, the state-run timber company, to sell timber to Ofitserov’s company, VLK, at below-market prices. Navalny says he simply consulted Ofitserov, who also denies the charges, as a lawyer and an acquaintance, and that the charges are revenge for his often acerbic criticism of Russia's top officials and allegations of high-level graft.
The investigation into the Kirovles allegations was originally opened in December 2010, but quickly closed for lack of evidence. The case was reopened shortly after Navalny dubbed Putin’s United Russia party “crooks and thieves” in February 2011, and fraud charges carrying a maximum sentence of five years were brought against him.
The case was again closed in April 2012, but swiftly reopened on the orders of Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee and a close Putin ally.
The charges, and hence the possible jail time, were ramped up in late July 2012, just days after Navalny accused Bastrykin of owning undeclared foreign real estate and other assets.
Former Kirovles director Vyacheslav Opalev, the official Navalny was originally accused of pressuring to sell the timber, was also charged in the new case. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was given a four-year suspended sentence in December. Lawyers for Navalny say the guilty plea will add weight to the prosecution’s case.
Navalny's lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, said after the court hearing that the protest leader's legal team would draw attention to what she said was the "obvious" political nature of the trial.
"We will use all possible lines of defense," she said at a news conference at temporary headquarters in Kirov set up by Navalny’s team.
A Kremlin spokesman denied this week that the charges against Navalny, who recently announced plans to run for president, were political, and said Putin would not be following the trial.
However, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, an FBI-style body answerable only to Putin, admitted last week that Navalny’s high-profile "taunting" of the authorities had intensified scrutiny of his activities.
Kirov Region Governor Nikita Belykh, Navalny’s former boss and a one-time opposition politician, has said neither the local administration nor Kirovles backs the charges against Navalny, which he has called “dubious.”
Far From Moscow
Some 100-150 Navalny supporters had traveled to Kirov to back the protest leader, who arrived in the city by train early on Wednesday. Court officials refused this week to transfer the trial to Moscow, where support for Navalny is strongest.
"I feel great!" Navalny, who was accompanied by his wife Yulia, said upon arriving in Kirov.
Despite the best efforts of Navalny's out-of-town supporters, who had plastered this sleepy provincial town with stickers calling on locals to "defend" the would-be presidential candidate, most of those at the early morning rally appeared to be Moscow-based activists.
Fellow protest leaders Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister from the time of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, and opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov were the most high-profile members of the anti-Putin movement's opposition council to travel to Kirov. Others, including veteran human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin, spoke at a Moscow protest in support of Navalny on Wednesday evening. Estimates of numbers present at the Moscow protest varied from 1,000 to 3,000 at 19:00 Moscow time, an hour after the rally’s scheduled start.
"If we let them jail Navalny, then nothing will stop the authorities. They will jail all their political opponents," Moscow region-based anti-Putin activist Nikolai Lyaskin told the morning rally back in Kirov.
"I expected more people," Lyaskin told RIA Novosti after city officials had confiscated his megaphone. "But I'm hoping the trial will get more attention as it goes on."
Currently, just 37 percent of Russians know who Navalny is, according to a survey conducted last month by the independent Levada Center. Of those, only 14 percent said they would consider voting for him in presidential elections. (The poll was conducted from March 22-25 among 1,601 respondents with a margin of error up to 3.4 percent.)
But not all Kirov residents were apathetic.
"We support Navalny because he is doing the right thing in fighting corruption," said local law student, Konstantin Barfarmov. "But most people in Kirov don't know much about what's going on."
Some 30 protesters, many hiding their faces from journalists, had also gathered at an alternative rally in Kirov, chanting "a thief should sit in jail!" a reference to Putin's comments ahead of the second trial of Russia's once-richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on controversial embezzlement charges in 2010.
Navalny supporters later set off on an "agitation" walk around Kirov, handing out glossy flyers detailing what they claim is the systematic siphoning off of Russia's resources by Putin and his associates.
"How can that Navalny say such things about the president?" asked a pensioner, who gave her name only as Vera, after reading a flyer. "He should be ashamed of himself."