MOSCOW - Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny could face up to six years in jail, prosecutors said on Friday amid an ongoing clampdown on the opposition to President Vladimir Putin.
The 37-year-old trained lawyer and activist blogger is accused of stealing 16 million rubles (about $480,000) from a timber company in Russia’s city of Kirov, charges that he denies.
Prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov announced that he wouldn’t try for the maximum 10-year term allowed. All the same, a six-year term would keep the anti-corruption campaigner in jail until after the next presidential election scheduled for 2018.
After Bogdanov finished his summation, Navalny exchanged smiles with his wife Yulia, Reuters reported. She hugged him after a break.
"I still hope everything will be fine," he told reporters.
The case against him lacked “real evidence,” and showed that the case against him “is politically motivated and aimed at discrediting and punishing a famous political activist,” Navalny’s defense lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, said in a written version of her defense speech.
Navalny coined the phrase “party of crooks and thieves,” in reference to the ruling United Russia Party, and rose to prominence around the elections in 2011 and 2012 that many deemed to be rigged. Since Putin, a former KGB spy who rose to power in 2000, reasserted his authority 2012, several opposition leaders have been charged with criminal offenses.
The case against Navalny has been compared to the trial of the Russian Oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been in prison since 2003 for tax evasion and money laundering after he challenged Putin politically.
“Considering the publicity of Navalny, you have to recognize that any decision [of the court] will have a political signal ... and show what the new direction will be,” said Andrei Kortunov, a political analyst with the Eurasia Foundation.
The government denies it uses the Russian courts for political ends.
Navalny has said he has presidential ambitions and wants to run for Moscow mayor in an election in September. Putin, 60, is eligible to seek a fourth presidential term in 2018, potentially extending his rule over Russia to nearly a quarter of a century.
Navalny is not the only opposition figure on trial. The so-called Bolotnaya case – known for the Bolotnaya Square, where a large anti-government protests took place in May 2012– is currently in progress and could result in the jailing of 12 people for organizing “mass disorder” during the demonstration that turned violent.
Despite his popularity among the Moscow protest movement and the country’s middle classes, Navalny is generally little known and it is not clear if he has much support among the working class and in the provinces, Putin's power base.
According to recent independent poll, only 3 percent of Russian people follow Navalny's case. However, 44 percent of people who do know about the case believe it is an attempt by the authorities to “shut his mouth.”