Businessman Alexander Lebedev has been charged by Russian authorities with "hooliganism", which could entail a sentence of up to five years in prison. Yesterday, he characterised the charges as part of a political campaign against him by elements within the Russian authorities.
Mr Lebedev part owns Novaya Gazeta, a hard-hitting investigative newspaper, with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. His son Evgeny Lebedev owns The Independent and the London Evening Standard.
"It's part of a campaign, and it's not to do with my businesses, even though that campaign is also ongoing," Mr Lebedev told The Independent. "This is either to do with Novaya investigations, or it's because they really think I am some kind of genuine clandestine opposition figure."
The charges relate to an incident last year when Mr Lebedev threw a punch at the Russian property tycoon Sergei Polonsky, during the recording of a televised debate. Mr Polonsky was knocked off his chair but rose to his feet immediately; the two men briefly squared up to each other but no further punches were thrown. Mr Polonsky later showed a small bruise and torn jeans as evidence of damage caused by the attack. At the time, Mr Lebedev said that he had been "provoked" into the attack by the persistent verbal hectoring of Mr Polonsky.
Lawyers and analysts suggested that similar assaults would normally be judged under laws that provide for fines or very brief incarceration, but Russia's Investigative Committee confirmed that as well as a charge of assault, Mr Lebedev will be charged under Article 213 of the Russian criminal code, which deals with acts of "hooliganism".
"These charges are fabricated," said Genri Reznik, Mr Lebedev's lawyer. "It's political revenge. They are absolutely false. I don't have anything else to say. As a lawyer, all I can say is that the whole thing is a fabrication."
Article 213 was used to sentence the punk trio Pussy Riot to two years' imprisonment last month for their impromptu performance of a song calling on the Virgin Mary to "chase Putin out" in Russia's main cathedral. To qualify under this article, acts must be motivated by hatred of a particular social group. In Pussy Riot's case, prosecutors argued that the women were motivated by hatred of Orthodox Christians; in Mr Lebedev's case, the official charge states that his actions were motivated by "political hatred".
"This is an extraordinarily disproportionate response to what happened in a TV studio many months ago," said Evgeny Lebedev in a statement. "My father has been targeted because of his determination to fight against corruption and to be a crusader for democracy in a country where this has not always been welcome."
Mr Lebedev is one of the few wealthy businessmen in the country to be openly critical of the regime. He has been a champion of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who has become one of the figureheads of the street opposition to Mr Putin, bringing him onto the board of Russian airline Aeroflot and donating funds to his anti-corruption activities. However he denies any further funding of the opposition.
"There has been pressure on me to leave Russia, but I am going to stay here and fight it," said Mr Lebedev yesterday. "Other things against me are also being worked on, and I know about them. But having taken a kind of civic stand, it wouldn't be right just to leave."
Since Mr Putin returned to the Kremlin in May there has been a crackdown on dissent, with tougher fines introduced for unsanctioned protests, and what appears to be an orchestrated campaign against leaders of the protest movement.
"I hope that common sense prevails and that these excessive charges are dropped," said Evgeny Lebedev of the charges against his father. "I really hope that this does not presage a new phase of crackdowns on those who speak out against injustice."