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Putin foe faces threat of jail in new trial

Police detain protest leader Alexei Navalny outside Zamoskvoretsky district court in Moscow, on February 24, 2014
Police officers detain protest leader Alexei Navalny outside Zamoskvoretsky district court in Moscow, on February 24, 2014

Prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny goes on trial Thursday in a major case that his supporters fear will end in a lengthy jail sentence for President Vladimir Putin's top critic.

The 37-year-old anti-corruption blogger was convicted of embezzlement in July and sentenced to five years in jail but walked free the following day in a surprise move that allowed him to run a high-profile campaign for Moscow mayor.

But his luck appears to be running out as Putin, buoyed by 80-percent approval ratings and a huge surge in patriotism following the takeover of Crimea last month increasingly shows he will brook no dissent.

"The Kremlin's hands are free now," said analyst and blogger Alexander Morozov.

"The Kremlin can do as it pleases on the wave of the post-Crimea flag-waving and powerful revanchist sentiments."

In a speech celebrating the takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula in March, Putin referred to critics as a "fifth column."

Just a few days before, Navalny had called the annexation a "big strategic mistake".

Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny (R) enters a room in a court in Moscow, on April 22, 2012, while waiting for the verdict in the slander case against him
Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny (R) enters a room in a court in Moscow, on April 22, 2012, while waiting for the verdict in the slander case against him

Over the past weeks, authorities have redoubled efforts to root out dissent, blocking major opposition websites as well as Navalny's popular blog he had used to expose corruption among the elite.

The jailing of Navalny would deprive Russia's already demoralised opposition of a charismatic leader after huge protests against Putin in 2011-12 failed to knock him off his perch.

Along with his brother Oleg, Navalny faces charges of stealing and laundering 27 million rubles ($756,500) from French cosmetics company Yves Rocher.

He has dismissed these and other charges against him as a Kremlin attempt to punish him.

In February, the father of two was placed under house arrest and banned from using the Internet.

On Thursday, a court could decide to transfer Navalny from his apartment to a pre-trial jail, his lawyer Vadim Kobzev said.

"I am sure that this case is being coordinated at the highest level," he told AFP, referring to the Kremlin.

-'Prosecution is lying'-

In the new case, Navalny is being accused of committing three crimes, said Kobzev, adding he was hard-pressed to estimate a maximum punishment his client faces.

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny shares a tender moment with his wife Yulia during a break at the hearing of his case in a court in the provincial northern city of Kirov, on October 16, 2013
Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny shares a tender moment with his wife Yulia during a break at the hearing of his case in a court in the provincial northern city of Kirov, on October 16, 2013

If convicted, he would unlikely walk out of jail like last summer, Kobzev said. "That just happens once in a lifetime."

In a move that stunned Russia, Navalny was released a day after being found guilty of embezzlement over a 2009 timber deal and arrested in court last July.

After Navalny came second in Moscow's mayoral election last September, polling more than 27 percent, a court converted his five-year sentence into a suspended term.

Navalny claims Yves Rocher testified against him under pressure from the Russian security service but later retracted its complaint.

"The prosecution is audaciously lying and concealing the fact that the French company had officially notified the investigation of an absence of damage," he wrote on Facebook this week.

Prominent author Boris Akunin released an open letter to Yves Rocher, saying the fact that Russian prosecutors ignored the withdrawal of the claims did not surprise anyone.

A demonstrator wears tape over his mouth with 'Putin' written on it during an opposition rally in central Moscow on October 27, 2013
A demonstrator wears tape over his mouth with "Putin" written on it during an opposition rally in central Moscow on October 27, 2013

"We have long gotten used to the Kafkaesque-ness of our repressive system," he wrote.

But it is surprising however, the pro-opposition writer said, that the French company let the Russian authorities use its name "to discredit the opposition leader in the eyes of the international community."

In a written comment to AFP, Yves Rocher Vostok said it had filed a complaint against an "unknown person" to protect its interests and to have access to the investigation in a "case in which the company was likely to have been a victim."

Over the past months, Navalny has become fair game for Putin's loyalists of all stripes. In March, state television accused him of having contacts with the CIA.

On Tuesday, the activist was found guilty of calling an obscure deputy "a lawmaker-drug addict" and ordered to pay him $8,300. Another libel claim, from a senior lawmaker, is set to be heard on Thursday, before the main trial.

"The most promising start-up today is to come up with a reason to sue Navalny," quipped one blogger.

Navalny has taken attacks in stride, using his court appearances to deride his opponents and livening up Russia's political scene with acerbic wit and a dash of theatre.