KIROV, Russia (AP) — The trial of a Russian opposition leader accused of embezzling half a million dollars’ worth of timber from a state-run company was adjourned shortly after its start Wednesday in a northwestern city.
Lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who spearheaded anti-government protests in 2011, and his former colleague are accused of leading an organized criminal group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company in the city of Kirov.
The charges not only threaten to send the 36-year-old Navalny to prison, but strike at the essence of his image as an anti-corruption activist. Navalny says the charges are an act of revenge for his exposure of high-level corruption.
As the trial began, several dozen activists protested in support of Navalny outside the courthouse in Kirov, chanting, “We will not let you go!”
Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, asked the court in her opening remarks to adjourn the trial for a month because her client was not given enough time to read the case files. Mikhailova also contested the court’s refusal to submit financial documents that could prove that what the prosecutors describe as embezzlement was a regular business deal.
The judge adjourned the trial for a week until April 24.
Even before Navalny became a key figure in the anti-government protests that erupted in 2011, the lawyer was a persistent thorn in the establishment’s side with his extensive blogging on Russia’s staggering high-level corruption. Authorities admit the trial is connected to his prominent activities, although they deny overt political motivations.
Navalny insists the charges are a fabrication intended to silence him on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, who has cracked down on dissent since returning for a third term last year.
Opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov, who came to Kirov, 800 kilometers (500 miles) from Moscow, to support the activist, said the probe against Navalny was “biased”.
“I’ve come here because this case is always against me and against all of us,” Gudkov said, referring to the Russian opposition movement.
Alexei Kudrin, a former Russian finance minister who served under Putin between 2000 and 2011, voiced his support for Navalny on Tuesday, saying the criminal case against the lawyer “casts doubts on the basics of the market economy in Russia.”