KIROV, Russia — Just 45 minutes after it began Wednesday, the trial of Russia’s most prominent opposition leader was delayed for a week at the defendant’s request.
Alexei Navalny, a 36-year-old anti-corruption blogger and protest leader, has been charged with stealing more than $500,000 from a state-owned timber company in this provincial city 900 miles northeast of Moscow. He served as an adviser to the governor here in 2009, when authorities say the crime occurred.
Navalny contends that the charges have been conjured up to silence him and frighten off others who oppose President Vladimir Putin. In an interview Monday, he said he expects a guilty verdict despite his innocence. He faces up to 10 years in prison — and disqualification from running for office.
The court’s chief judge, Konstantin Zaitsev, told reporters here that an innocent verdict was most unlikely, pointing out that Russia has a conviction rate higher than 99 percent. That is because only water-tight cases reach court, he said.
The judge hearing the Navalny case, Sergei Blinov, recently joined the court and has been commuting 40 miles from his village. He looked even younger than his 35 years and spoke so quietly his voice was barely audible.
Court officials said Blinov has not acquitted a defendant in 130 cases.
Navalny was joined in the small courtroom by his wife, lawyers and two generations of liberal politicians from Moscow — Boris Nemtsov, 53, who was a progressive governor and briefly vice premier in the Boris Yeltsin era, and Dmitri Gudkov, 33, a member of the Russian parliament who got into trouble for attending a roundtable on Russian-American relations in Washington recently and having the temerity to speak in English. His fellow members of the state Duma voted this month to punish him by preventing him from speaking during the next nine parliamentary sessions.
The opposition considers Navalny’s trial politically motivated, meant as a warning from Putin that protest will not be tolerated. More than 100 supporters made the 12-hour train trip from Moscow to rally behind the activist. Dozens of journalists also lined up for hours, some standing outside overnight, to get places on the wooden benches that seat only 60. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow sent a human rights officer to observe, and European officials were also represented.
The packs of journalists who could not get into the courtroom stood outside under cold gray skies and followed minute-by-minute tweets from those inside.
Navalny asked for the postponement because his appeals to have the case heard in Moscow have not been exhausted and because he had added a local lawyer to his team who had not had time to read the materials. He apologized to journalists for the brevity of the proceedings.
“I can feel your disappointment,” he said.