Russian protest leader Navalny faces new probe
MOSCOW (AP) -- Alexei Navalny, a driving force behind massive protests against Vladimir Putin's rule, faced a new criminal probe Tuesday on charges of theft that come amid a widening Kremlin crackdown on dissent.
Navalny rejected the charges, which carry a 10-year prison term if he's convicted and follow the recent jailing of opposition activists and the passage of new repressive legislation.
The State Investigative Committee said Tuesday that it suspects Navalny of organizing a scheme to steal assets from a state timber company totaling 16 million rubles (about half a million dollars). He was ordered not to leave the city. Navalny called the charges "weird" and baseless.
Over the winter, charismatic and energetic Navalny spearheaded a series of opposition rallies in Moscow that drew up to 100,000 to the streets ahead of the March vote in which Putin won a third presidential term. The 36-year-old corruption-fighting lawyer and popular blogger, who has over 270,000 followers on Twitter and reached tens of thousands through his blog, has played a key role in rallying Russia's young Internet generation against Putin's rule.
The Kremlin fired back after the election with a series of arrests of opposition activists. Parliament, controlled by Putin's loyalists, also rushed through a bill that raised fines 150-fold for those taking part in unsanctioned protests. Another bill passed this month requires non-governmental groups receiving funding from abroad and engaging in political activity to register as foreign agents.
In another demonstration of a tougher line on dissent, three Russian feminist rockers went on trial for performing a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral against Putin's return as president on charges that carry a punishment of up to seven years in prison.
The probe against Navalny is focusing at events dating back to 2009 when he served as an adviser to a provincial governor. Investigators allege that he colluded with timber company officials to rob it. It follows a previous probe into similar allegations, which was closed earlier this year.
Investigation Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin has recently chided a local investigator for closing that case.
Navalny, who owes his popularity to investigating rampant official corruption, targeted Bastrykin this week, claiming that the chief investigator has obtained Czech residency permit and bought an apartment in Prague. Bastrykin defended himself in an interview with the daily Izvestia, admitting that he bought the apartment but denying having the residency permit.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt expressed concern over fresh charges against Navalny. "We should be concerned with attempts in Russia to silence fierce opposition activist Alexei Navalny," he tweeted.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)