Trial of Russia opposition leader Navalny to begin April 17

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny will stand trial in mid-April on embezzlement charges, a court said Wednesday, in a case supporters say is aimed at removing President Vladimir Putin's top opponent from the political scene.

The case against Navalny, one of the most outspoken figures in the anti-Putin opposition movement, concerns a probe into a business deal that was struck by the government of the Kirov region he advised in 2009.

If found guilty, he faces up to 10 years in jail.

"The trial will begin on April 17," Sergei Blinov, a judge with the Leninsky district court in the provincial city of Kirov who will preside over the case, told AFP.

Navalny, who is facing several investigations, has already served two 15-day jail terms in Moscow for administrative offences he is deemed to have committed during anti-Putin protests.

But this is the first time Navalny will face a full-scale trial.

The 36-year-old is accused of acting in cahoots with a private firm, stealing 10,000 cubic metres of timber and causing a loss of 16 million rubles ($509,000) to the regional government.

Kirov is located some 800 kilometres (500 miles) to the northeast of Moscow.

Judge Blinov declined to further discuss the case against Navalny.

The opposition leader, who made a name for himself through a series of high-profile corruption investigations, denies the charges, saying the Kremlin wants to muzzle him.

"The entire criminal case against Navalny has been made up by employees of the Russian Investigative Committee on the orders of Vladimir Putin," says the website, which was set up by Navalny ahead of the trial.

Navalny was at the forefront of unprecedented opposition protests that shook Russia last year.

Critics say his upcoming trial is part of a crackdown on civil society after Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term last May.

Weeks after his inauguration, Putin signed off on a raft of laws that opponents have attacked as a bid to quash dissent.

Scores of activists now face jail time for taking part in a protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration and for alleged plans to overthrow the Russian strongman with the help of foreign sponsors.

After the protests largely died down, Navalny changed tack, launching a campaign aimed at exposing unscrupulous lawmakers and other top Putin allies.

In February, a senior parliament member, Vladimir Pekhtin, resigned after Navalny and his associates accused him of having US property worth over $2 million.

Navalny says Putin, whom he calls the "chief crook," wants to see him prosecuted to discredit him and clip his political ambitions.

"There is no doubt that it will be a guilty verdict," Navalny said in remarks posted on the site.

"Otherwise, the case, which has obviously been fabricated, would not have made it to court."

Even if Navalny gets a suspended sentence, by law he would not be able to run for elected office.

In a separate investigation, Navalny and his brother are accused of embezzling 55 million rubles ($1.8 million) from a trading company.

Another case against Navalny concerns 100 million rubles ($3.2 million at current exchange rates) allegedly stolen from a now defunct liberal political party called the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) in 2007, even though the former members of the party laugh off the charges.

These cases have yet to reach trial.

Pro-opposition political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said the authorities wanted to intimidate Navalny into silence or even exile.

"If he does not budge then they would have to create a second Khodorkovsky," he said, referring to the jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky who supporters say was put in prison for defying Putin.

"Their goal is to create an atmosphere of fear so that everyone would sit tight and keep silent."