Russian investigators accuse activist of fraud on eve of banned rally in Moscow
State investigators have accused Russia’s most popular opposition leader of fraud on the eve of an anti-government rally in Moscow today.
Alexei Navalny (36), a lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner who has spearheaded some of the biggest anti-government protests for two decades, has been accused of masterminding a multimillion-rouble fraud with his younger brother, Oleg.
According to a statement yesterday by Russia’s Investigative Committee, the brothers embezzled 55 million roubles (€1.37 million) while running a mail freight business in 2008-11, and pocketed “a large part” of this money for their “personal needs”.
Alexei Navalny is an organiser of the “Freedom March”, expected to bring thousands to central Moscow today despite a ban on the event by the mayor’s office. The opposition leader said the charges against him were “complete nonsense”.
“I am not enough for them any more, now they are after my family,” he tweeted from a business meeting, having apparently learned of the case through the media.
Investigators were searching the homes of his brother and parents, he said later on twitter.
The charges, which carry a 10-year prison sentence, prompted a defiant response from Mr Navalny’s mother. “They [investigators] want to blackmail my son through his family, so he will not go to the march and will cease his political activity,” Lyudmila Navalnaya told Radio Echo Moscow.
“ It won’t work, because the whole family supports Alexei. And we, and all our friends, are definitely going [to the march].”
Mr Navalny came to national attention with his whistle-blowing website, which publishes leaked documents revealing blatant corruption in the awarding of government contracts.
He also coined the phrase “the party of crooks and thieves” to describe governing tribe United Russia which, to the fury of its deputies, has stuck in the popular lexicon.
Mr Navalny is already being compared to the former tycoon-turned Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sent to a Siberian jail for embezzlement after criminal investigations that were widely seen as trumped up. The charges against Mr Navalny were “politically motivated persecution disguised under the law”, former Soviet dissident Lyudmila Alekseyeva said yesterday. “I absolutely don’t believe that Navalny is guilty. It has all been made up to discredit him,” she told Interfax.
In July, investigators accused Mr Navalny of stealing 16 million roubles worth of wood while he worked as an adviser to the Kirov oblast (region) in 2009. That case is ongoing.
Investigators have also been looking at his role in the May 6th “riots”, protests on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president that ended in hundreds of arrests.
Some observers fear a repeat of clashes with police today, because the rally has not been authorised by the authorities.
Despite the lack of official sanction, thousands are expected to converge outside the Lubyanka, former KGB headquarters, now home to its successor, the FSB.