KIROV, April 24 (RIA Novosti) – The trial of one of Russia’s most prominent Kremlin critics, Alexei Navalny, resumed on Wednesday in the central Russian city of Kirov, a week after it was adjourned.
Judge Sergei Blinov postponed the trial last week for seven days after Navalny's defense team asked for more time to study the case materials.
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.
Both men face up to 10 years behind bars if found guilty of the charges, which they deny. Navalny has repeatedly said he expects a guilty verdict, citing Russia's extremely low rate of acquittals in criminal cases (less than 1 percent).
Navalny, who led mass protests against the rule of President Vladimir Putin in 2011 and 2012, says he simply consulted Ofitserov 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 involving managers of state-owned companies.
The Kremlin and investigators dismiss allegations that the charges against Navalny are politically motivated. However, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee, an FBI-style body answerable only to Putin, admitted earlier this month that Navalny’s high-profile "taunting" of the authorities had intensified scrutiny of his activities.
“If a person in a criminal case does all he can to attract attention, or you could even say, taunts the authorities … then the interest in his past grows and the process of exposing him naturally goes faster,” Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in an interview with the Izvestia newspaper.
Around 150 Navalny supporters - including fellow protest leaders Boris Nemtsov and Dmitry Gudkov - traveled to Kirov last week for the expected start of the trial. But Wednesday saw around 20 people demonstrate against the charges outside the court. Protest leader Ilya Yashin was the only high-profile anti-Putin activist to make the journey to Kirov, some 500 miles from Moscow.
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.