Russia's most prominent opposition leader described the country’s government as a regime of “scumbags”, in impassioned final words to a provincial court that could jail him for up to six years.
Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has emerged as the most charismatic leader of protests against President Vladimir Putin, is on trial for embezzlement of 16 million roubles (£320,000) from a timber company, which allegedly occurred when he worked as the adviser to the governor of Kirov region in 2009.
Mr Navalny, as well as a number of independent experts who have reviewed the charges, have described them as bizarre and fabricated, and the defendant yesterday described the trial as a “political order” from the Kremlin. Mr Navalny has angered the authorities by uncovering a number of cases of corruption within government elites and publishing details on his blog. The spokesperson for the country’s Investigative Committee admitted in an interview that the authorities had been spurred by his investigations to bring a prosecution against him.
Mr Navalny also wants to stand in September elections for Moscow mayor against the Kremlin's preferred choice, incumbent Sergei Sobyanin. He launched his campaign this week, and there has been speculation that the main goal of the court case is to prevent Mr Navalny from standing. If Judge Sergei Blinov, who during his entire career has never issued an innocent verdict, finds Mr Navalny guilty, then he will be barred from standing in elections, even if he is only given a suspended sentence.
The prospect that he will receive an actual jail term became more real yesterday, when the state prosecutor asked the judge to jail Mr Navalny for six years. He asked asked for a fine of one million roubles (£20,000).
Mr Navalny’s co-defendant, Petr Ofitserov, told the court that he could have done a deal with investigators to provide false testimony against Mr Navalny, but had decided not to. “I have five children. I could have made a deal,” said Mr Ofitserov to the judge. “But when my children grow up they will ask me what I did in this case. And they would find out.” Mr Navalny said that it was clear Mr Ofitserov had been caught up “by chance” in the “political process” and asked the judge not to jail his co-defendant. “Surely there should be some limit to the absurdity,” he said.
In an angry final speech attacking the government of Mr Putin, Mr Navalny said there was a “feudal system” in the country, and that “100 people have hijacked power thanks to state television, inertia, and public apathy.”
The judge looked circumspect through much of the proceedings and retired to consider the verdict and sentence, which will he will announce on 18 July.