Russian state investigators say they have opened a new criminal case against Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, accusing him of fraudulently spending more than 356 million rubles ($4.8m) of public donations to organisations he controls on his personal needs, including holidays abroad.
The Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said in a statement on Tuesday the money was part of more than 588 million rubles Navalny had raised “exclusively” for his non-profit organisations, including the Anti-Corruption Fund.
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“In this way, the funds collected from citizens were stolen,” the committee said, adding it had opened a criminal case into “fraud on an especially large scale”.
The charge Russia’s most prominent opposition figure carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
The move came a day after Russia’s prison service gave Navalny another potential legal headache in the form of a last-minute ultimatum: Fly back from Germany at once and report early on Tuesday morning, or be jailed if you return after that deadline.
Navalny was unable to return in time.
The fraud case is likely to be seen as the latest sign that the Kremlin does not want Navalny, who is convalescing in Germany, to return to Russia after what Berlin and other Western nations say was an attempt in August to murder him with a nerve agent.
In August, the Kremlin critic fell violently ill during a flight from Siberia to Moscow and was hospitalised in the city of Omsk before being transferred to Berlin by medical aircraft.
Experts in several Western countries concluded the 44-year-old Russian dissident was poisoned with the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent – a claim that Moscow has repeatedly denied.
Navalny has said the main security agency Federal Security Service (FSB) was behind the poisoning at the direction of President Vladimir Putin
On Tuesday, Navalny described the fresh criminal probe against him as “invented by Putin”. He said he had predicted that the authorities would seek to jail him after failing to kill him.
“Well, I immediately said that they will try to put me in jail because I didn’t die” from the poisoning, he wrote on Twitter.
The Kremlin earlier on Tuesday declined to comment on other potential legal action against Navalny.
Putin has said that media reports that Russian state security agents poisoned Navalny were part of a United States-backed plot to try to discredit him. He said Navalny was not important enough to be a target.
Navalny has faced charges of fraud before.
In February 2014, he was charged with fraud and money laundering and spent almost a year under house arrest before receiving a suspended sentence in December that year.
Last year, Europe’s tops right courts ruled that Russia had violated Navalny’s rights with the case.