Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was targeted for investigation because of his repeated "teasing" of the Kremlin, a senior investigative official said Friday, days before the top critic of President Vladimir Putin goes on trial.
The spokesman of the powerful Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, in a rare interview with the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper, even suggested Navalny had been trained by US agents to trigger regime change in Russia.
Navalny, a popular anti-corruption crusader who last week announced that he wants to be president, is going on trial on April 17 in an embezzlement case he says was fabricated on Putin's orders.
Markin strongly defended the decision to prosecute against Western criticism and bluntly acknowledged that Navalny had come under increased legal scrutiny because of his political activities.
"Why should some street protester have immunity? Because the West is protecting him? That would be possible in some weak country, but not Russia. We are a global power," Markin said.
"If the suspect is going out of his way to attract attention, even teases the authorities... then the interest toward his past grows and the process of bringing it out to the open hastens."
Navalny, who gained a huge following through his anti-corruption blog before rising to political prominence during the mass protests after the parliamentary elections in December 2011, has accused numerous officials of corruption, including the head of the investigative committee Alexander Bastrykin.
The opposition leader is charged with organising the theft of 10,000 cubic metres of timber and causing a loss of 16 million rubles ($509,000) to the regional government of Kirov in central-northern Russia when he worked as advisor to its governor.
Navalny, who has denied any wrongdoing and made all documents regarding the case available for the public, said he expects to be jailed. His charges could lead to imprisonment of up to ten years.
Markin proposed that Navalny could "use his experience" as a corruption fighter while in prison.
He even suggested that the activist's stint in Yale University -- where he was a world fellow in 2010 -- led to his cooperation with foreign security "handlers" who trained him for regime change.
"I suspect that in Yale, or wherever they prepare politicians for developing countries... they mixed Russia up with Georgia or some other third-world country," Markin said, referring to Russia's neighbour to the south, where the Rose Revolution of 2003 brought to power a pro-Western leadership.
"I doubt that his handlers didn't know that criminal prosecution is possible," he added.
With a heavy dose of irony, Navalny called the interview "a brilliant piece that is a must-read" on his blog.
"Try to find proof that I organised the theft of 16 million rubles," the 36-year-old lawyer asked his followers, publishing the prosecution's 99-page long indictment against him, including his emails and quotes from wiretapping transcripts.
Supporters of Navalny are preparing to travel to Kirov, a city of about 500,000 west of the Urals, and stage a protest on the day the trial opens, while pro-Kremlin youth activists have vowed to rally against him.
The US State department last year expressed "serious concerns" about the embezzlement charges against Navalny and general "politically motivated prosecutions of the Russian opposition."
Navalny for the first time last week declared he wanted to stand for president, an announcement that analysts described as a bid to cast himself as a political prisoner should he be jailed. This week his supporters also filed documents to the ministry of justice to register a new party.