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Putin foe Navalny goes on trial in Russia, wins delay


Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny went on trial Wednesday on embezzlement charges he says were trumped up by President Vladimir Putin to eliminate an outspoken political foe.

But the charismatic blogger won a brief respite as the process was adjourned by Judge Sergei Blinov within 40 minutes to give the defence more time to prepare. The trial resumes on April 24.

Hundreds of journalists and Navalny supporters descended on the provincial northern city of Kirov 900 kilometres (560 miles) from Moscow for the trial of Navalny and a co-defendant on embezzlement charges related to a timber deal.

Navalny, who risks up to 10 years in prison in the case, has predicted he will be convicted and possibly jailed. Even a suspended sentence would make it illegal for him to run for office.

"One way or another I am sure that during the hearing my innocence will be completely proved. But what decision the judge makes or whoever makes the decision, we'll see," Navalny said after the adjournment.

"I won't go on about how the case is fabricated and falsified. I am completely innocent," he said.

The trial is a potential turning point in the standoff between the Kremlin and the opposition that erupted with mass protests in the winter of 2011-2012 ahead of Putin's return for a third Kremlin term last May.

Navalny -- who emerged as by far the most eloquent of the protest leaders -- had raised the stakes ahead of the trial by announcing that he wanted to stand for president.

The 36-year-old is a new breed of Russian protest leader who has steered clear of party politics but has built a huge Internet following with sharply-written blogs and corruption exposes.

Dressed in a white shirt without a tie and jeans and looking relaxed, Navalny, 36, sat with his lawyers and co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov. His right hand was bandaged after a minor injury.

Navalny flashed smiles and used a mobile phone emblazoned with Putin's face and the word "thief" to take a picture of the dozens of journalists pointing cameras at him.

Navalny arrived in Kirov on the night train from Moscow in a dramatic entrance that some bloggers compared to Vladimir Lenin's arrival in Russia by train ahead of the 1917 revolution.

It is the latest trial in post-Soviet Russia to be denounced by the opposition as a political act of revenge by Putin, after the jailing of anti-Kremlin tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the radical punk group Pussy Riot.

Navalny is charged with organising the misappropriation in a timber deal of more than 16 million rubles ($512,000 / 388,000 euros) from the Kirov regional government that he advised in 2009.

Judge Blinov has over the last two-and-a-half-years handed out 130 convictions and no acquittals, according to the New Times weekly.

Russia's respected liberal former finance minister Alexei Kudrin wrote on his blog that the case against Navalny resembled "time travel" back to the Soviet era.

Well known detective novel writer and opposition supporter Boris Akunin wrote on his blog that the jailing of Navalny would be a "catastrophe" for Russia because it would radicalise the opposition into a position of "irreconciliation" with the authorities.

Hundreds of people thronged a square in central Moscow on Wednesday evening in a protest supporting Navalny. There were no reports of clashes with police.

Navalny's anti-corruption campaign has won a huge Internet following, boldly making claims against powerful foes such as Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin and First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov.

But he still faces a struggle to make an impact at a national level, with polls showing that only a third of Russians know who he is.

Navalny's claims that the case is a political set-up were at least partially confirmed last week by the spokesman of the Investigative Committee, who said the opposition leader had drawn attention to himself with his "teasing" of the Kremlin.