A Russian blogger known for his virulent criticism of President Vladimir Putin has been charged with theft, and could be handed a 10-year prison sentence as the government continues its crackdown on dissent.
Alexei Navalny was charged on Tuesday in Moscow, dismissing the allegations as “weird” and baseless.
The State Investigative Committee said it suspects Navalny of organising a scheme to steal assets from a state timber company. The assets are estimated to be worth about $500,000.
As the committee pursues an investigation against him, Navalny has been ordered not to leave Moscow.
Navalny’s supporters protested outside the committee’s offices in the capital.
The 36-year-old anti-corruption crusader has been instrumental in rallying Russia’s young internet generation against Putin’s rule.
Navalny, a lawyer, led a series of rallies in Moscow that attracted up to 100,000 people after December’s parliamentary elections were alleged to have been rigged and ahead of the March election that handed Putin a third presidential term.
In Russia, authorities file initial charges to open a criminal probe, long before reaching the trial stage. Navalny told reporters: “The charges are absolutely absurd.”
The government embarked on a major crackdown on the opposition after Putin’s re-election, which was also criticised as fraudulent, arresting some activists and using legislation to try to curb its activities.
Parliament, controlled by Putin loyalists, passed a bill that raised fines 150-fold for people taking part in unsanctioned protests.
Another bill passed this month requires non-governmental groups receiving funding from abroad and engaging in political activity to register as foreign agents.
In one example of the tougher line on dissent, three Russian feminist rockers have gone on trial for performing a “punk prayer”‘ against Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral.
They face up to seven years in prison, and human rights groups have condemned the trial, calling the women prisoners of conscience.
The probe against Navalny focuses on events dating to 2009 when he served as an adviser to a provincial governor in the Kirov region. Investigators allege that he colluded with the head of a state timber company and a trader to rob it.
A previous probe into similar allegations was closed earlier this year for lack of evidence.