A prominent Russian opposition activist who spearheaded massive protests against Vladimir Putin's rule has been charged with theft of state property and banned from leaving the country.
Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and popular blogger behind a series of opposition rallies ahead of the presidential elections which returned Mr Putin to power earlier this year, faces a 10-year prison term if he is convicted.
The charges come amid a widening crackdown on dissent in the country that has seen the jailing of a number of opposition activists and the introduction of repressive legislation targeted at pro-democracy organisations.
Mr Navalny is accused of organising a scheme to embezzle around 16 million rubles (£320,000) in assets from a state timber company. The investigation dates back to 2009, when Mr Navalny served as an adviser to a provincial governor in the Kirov region.
The anti-corruption campaigner rejected the charges yesterday, calling the case against him baseless. "I have been charged and ordered not to leave," Mr Navalny told reporters after emerging from the Investigative Committee headquarters, where he had been summoned for questioning.
"This is really quite absurd and very strange because they have completely changed the essence of the accusation" he added.
Mr Navalny rose to prominence by highlighting corruption at state-controlled companies on his blog, energising Russia's burgeoning internet-savvy generation in the process. In the run-up to parliamentary elections in December last year, he was a key figure in organising demonstrations against Mr Putin's United Russia party.
Following Putin's victory in a presidential election in March, and amid allegations of electoral fraud, attendance at some rallies reached more than 100,000 – the largest since Mr Putin came to power.
The former deputy prime minister Boris Nemstov, another prominent Putin opponent, yesterday accused the government of falsifying the charges against Mr Navalny. "This case has been fabricated from beginning to end," he said. "The true reason for what is happening is Putin's mortal fear of losing power... He is wildly afraid of the opposition, including Navalny."
The case against Mr Navalny was announced as the trial of an all-female punk band facing charges of hooliganism for performing an anti-Putin protest entered its second day yesterday.
Three members of the band Pussy Riot face up to seven years in prison for an unsanctioned protest performance at the altar of Russia's main cathedral, where they called on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out!"
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, said their protest was aimed at highlighting the close relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
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