RUSSIAN investigators have charged street protest leader Alexei Navalny with theft and banned him from leaving the country, threatening a heavy jail term, in what supporters say is a growing crackdown on dissent by president Vladimir Putin.
Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has organised demonstrations that have dented Mr Putin’s authority, dismissed the charge as “absurd”. Other opposition leaders accused Mr Putin of using KGB-style tactics to try to silence his critics.
Russia’s federal investigative committee said in a statement that Navalny, 36, had been charged yesterday over the theft of timber from a state firm while he was advising a regional governor in 2009, and could face a ten-year sentence.
“I have been charged and ordered not to leave,” Navalny said after emerging from the investigative committee headquarters, where he had been summoned for the presentation of what he had expected would be a less severe charge. He has been questioned repeatedly since the case was opened in 2010.
He said: “This is really quite absurd and very strange because they have completely changed the essence of the accusation, compared to what it was before.
“I will continue to do what I have been doing, and in this sense nothing changes for me.”
Navalny, a lawyer, added: “We believe that what is happening now is illegal. We will use the methods of legal defence at our disposal. What else can we do?”
Navalny is one of the few people seen as capable of emerging as a viable leader of the fractious opposition, although critics say he has nationalist tendencies.
He gained prominence by fighting corruption at state-controlled companies – and by using the internet to do so, he has appealed to a tech-savvy generation of urban Russians who have turned away from the mainstream media.
Before parliamentary elections in December he helped energise a struggling opposition, popularising a phrase referring to the ruling United Russia party, then headed by Mr Putin, as the “party of swindlers and thieves”.
He was also among the leaders of large protests prompted by allegations of election fraud on behalf of United Russia, which saw its big majority in parliament cut to a handful of seats.
“This case [against Navalny] has been fabricated from beginning to end,” said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is a prominent opponent of Mr Putin. “The true reason for what is happening is Putin’s mortal fear of losing power … He is wildly afraid of the opposition, including Navalny.”
In a reference to the Cheka secret police, a precursor of the Soviet KGB, Mr Nemtsov said: “Putin is using traditional Chekist methods … fabricated cases, charges, arrests, jail.”
Mr Putin won a presidential election on 4 March despite the largest protests since the start of his 12-year rule as president and prime minister. At times, attendance at the rallies reached more than 100,000, witnesses said.
But opponents say a series of steps he has taken in recent months to tighten control show the former KGB spy is worried about losing his grip on the world’s largest country.
Mr Putin – who has repeatedly warned against rocking the boat in speeches since his election – signed a law on Monday toughening punishment for defamation and another yesterday that opponents say could be used to censor the internet.