Alexander Lebedev, a media magnate and Kremlin critic, has been charged with hooliganism after he punched a guest on a television show last year.
“Alexander Lebedev has been charged with hooliganism and assault,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement on Wednesday, referring to Lebedev as a lawmaker in a district council.
“According to investigators, Alexander Lebedev caused bodily harm to Sergei Polonsky when he was taking part in the show NTVshniki, which was aired September 16, 2011,” it added.
Lebedev, who owns Britain’s The Independent and Evening Standard dailies and part-owns Russia’s most critical opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, may now face up to five years in prison on what he says are politically motivated charges.
The full charge of hooliganism and assault motivated by political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred, or hatred of a particular social group, earned three members of punk rock group Pussy Riot two years in
prison last month.
Lebedev co-owns Novaya Gazeta together with former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and has written numerous articles ridiculing President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
If convicted of hooliganism, he could be jailed for up to five years, while assault carries a shorter term of two years.
Lebedev was summoned by investigators at 10:00 GMT and asked to sign an undertaking not to leave the country during the investigation, his spokesman Artyom Artyomov said.
“He refused to sign the undertaking,” Artyomov said, adding that Lebedev planned to stay in Russia and fight the charges.
“We are starting on the premise that we live under the rule of law,” he said.
During an argument on the talk show, Lebedev jabbed Polonsky in the face and knocked him off his chair. Polonsky later published online pictures of a cut to his arm and his torn trousers.
Writing in his blog at the time, Lebedev justified the assault by saying Polonsky had behaved in an aggressive, threatening manner throughout the debate.
“In a critical situation, there is no choice. I see no reason to be hit with the first shot. I neutralised him,” he wrote.
Investigators initially opened a probe in October last year.
“It took our highly qualified investigators a whole year to conscientiously investigate this incident,” Lebedev told the Interfax news agency.
He called the charges “completely made up,” saying that he saw behind them “political motives that are unknown to me.”
His son and business partner Evgeny Lebedev wrote on Twitter that he believed the newspaper owner was “being targeted by people who don’t like his stance against corruption and hate Novaya (Gazeta).”
Lebedev’s spokesman Artyomov drew parallels with the case of female rock band Pussy Riot, whose anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral saw three of its members landed with two-year sentences for hooliganism last month.
“There is a precedent,” he said. “The criminal charge in itself is political.”
Lebedev called for the Pussy Riot members’ release during their pre-trial detention and offered to act as a guarantor of their good behaviour.
He said last month that he intended to wind down his Moscow holdings because of unrelenting pressure from the Kremlin-run security services after repeated raids on his main bank.
“He has said that he wants to get out of business … Of course it is all connected,” Artyomov said Wednesday.
Lebedev’s on-screen opponent in the skirmish, Polonsky, is an outspoken real estate tycoon whose extravagant behaviour and racy business slogans have repeatedly raised eyebrows in the past.
Vedomosti business daily wrote Monday that Polonsky had “temporarily left Russia and is either in Cambodia or London.” It estimated the debts of his real-estate company Potok at around $600 million.