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Russian billionaire Lebedev charged with hooliganism

Alexander Lebedev, chairman of Russia's National Reserve Corporation, speaks during an interview with Reuters journalists in Moscow on Sept. 25, 2012. (MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)

A billionaire former KGB agent who has been financing an independent newspaper has been charged with hooliganism for getting into a fight on a television show a year ago, Russian news agencies reported Wednesday, in yet another sign of a crackdown on dissident voices here.

Alexander Lebedev, who along with Mikhail Gorbachev has been providing funds to the crusading Novaya Gazeta newspaper, faces criminal charges for taking two swings and knocking a fellow television guest off his chair, Russia’s Investigative Committee told the Interfax news agency.

Until recently, former KGB agents appeared to derive some degree of protection from their membership in the secret police. But this month, Gennady Gudkov, an ex-agent, was stripped of his seat in parliament. He was accused of running a business in violation of parliamentary rules, but he asserted that he was targeted by President Vladimir Putin — also formerly of the KGB — for joining opposition marches.

The charges against Lebedev, 52, come as Putin, who returned to the presidency in May, has overseen a methodical attack against any perceived opposition. Laws governing protests have been made harsher, human rights and election-monitoring groups that receive foreign money must register as foreign agents, and the U.S. Agency for International Development has been expelled because it offered grants to those groups.

Lebedev, whose other media interests include Britain’s the Independent and London’s Evening Standard, told a Reuters Russia Investment Summit on Tuesday that Putin had turned on him because he suspects him of financing the opposition — a charge that landed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in prison.

“He thinks it is true that I have been funding” the opposition, Lebedev told Reuters, “so I was violating rule No. 1 — if you have money, you should not interfere [in politics].”

He denied the accusation.

Lebedev, whose wealth has been estimated at $1.1 billion by Forbes magazine, nominated anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny to the board of directors of the national airline Aeroflot earlier this year. Lebedev has a stake in the company and has been trying to sell his Russian businesses, he said this year.

He got into a fight on a talk show last year with a developer named Sergei Polonsky when Polonsky said he was mad enough to punch someone. Lebedev said he took the remark as a threat. Putin described the incident as hooliganism. That is the same charge brought against three members of a feminist punk-rock group who were sentenced to two years in jail last month.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of seven years behind bars.

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