Trial of Putin critic opens in Russia

April 24, 2013

The judge warned the anti-corruption blogger charged with embezzlement not to turn the proceedings into a political trial. The blogger — Alexei Navalny, a leader of Russia’s protest movement — responded by denouncing the “corrupt, usurping regime” of President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny’s trial began in earnest Wednesday in Kirov, a beaten-down city that’s an overnight train ride from Moscow, after a brief opening a week ago. The activist is accused of embezzling $500,000 worth of timber in 2009 when he was working as an adviser to the local governor.

Navalny denied the charge, as he often has before, and said the trial would prove his innocence — whatever the verdict. In Russia, trials nearly always end with the defendant found guilty, but Navalny said he was confident that the world will understand he has clean hands.

“This case is political revenge for our investigation into corruption,” he said. “This case is political revenge, in particular, for the campaign ‘Vote for any party other than the party of crooks and thieves.’ ” That was a reference to Navalny’s derisive, and now widely used, nickname for the ruling United Russia party.

The judge, Sergei Blinov, who mumbled and appeared grim throughout the day, told Navalny to provide some evidence of the political nature of the case against him. (The proceeding were broadcast by an upstart Internet television channel called Dozhd TV, and highlights were tweeted by the defendant’s supporters, and by Navalny himself, all day.)

Navalny could face 10 years in a prison camp, although he has said he believes he may be given a suspended sentence. That would put him on a short leash with the authorities, and with a criminal record he would be ineligible to run for public office.

Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, asked Blinov to recuse himself on the grounds that he had shown bias against her client by dismissing nearly every defense pre-trial motion and by his deference to prosecutors. The judge considered the request briefly then announced he would stay on.

Blinov laid out a schedule for the trial that would take it to the end of May, and he said it could go longer.

Navalny succeeded in arranging a break for May 6, on the grounds that he has to appear before another court, in Moscow, on that day. But that is also a day when the opposition plans to hold a large demonstration in the capital, and Navalny intends to take part. May 6 is the anniversary of the raucous protest against Putin at Bolotnaya Square last year that saw police beating up protesters and that has led to serious criminal charges against a handful of defendants.

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