Trial of Russian protest leader Navalny reopens

A Russian court on Wednesday reopened the trial on embezzlement charges of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who may face up to a decade in jail if convicted in a case he says was orchestrated by President Vladimir Putin.

The prosecution accuses the 36-year-old, who has emerged as the most charismatic figure in the anti-Putin protest movement, of causing a loss of $500,000 (385,000 euros) to a regional government while acting as an advisor in a timber deal.

The trial, held about 900 kilometres (560 miles) from Moscow in the northern city of Kirov, opened last week but was quickly adjourned after Navalny's defence said they needed more time to study the case.

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

During Wednesday's hearing, attended by around a hundred journalists and opposition activists, Navalny's defence called for the case to be sent back to the prosecution.

They cited a litany of violations committed by the investigators, and argued that the final indictment contains conflicting information.

"Our demands are reasonable," Navalny, dressed in jeans and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, later told reporters during a court recess. "The case cannot be heard in its current state, it is raw."

But Navalny, who is himself a lawyer, appeared in a less jovial mood than the week before, when he joked and took pictures of the proceedings with his phone, as he sat in court after travelling up on the sleeper train from Moscow.

A total of five probes are now aimed at the opposition leader, who if he is even given a suspended sentence will be banned from ever standing for office. He has predicted this trial alone could take months, with some 40 witnesses called to give testimony.

"I will grin and bear it. One day we will get even for all of them at once," Navalny wrote on his popular blog last week.

In an editorial published in the daily Vedomosti newspaper on Wednesday, Khodorkovsky, who is serving his second jail term in a prison colony in northern Karelia region, voiced support for Navalny.

"Political motivation is clear" in Navalny's case, he wrote.

"In an honest and fair court, these charges would turn out to be baseless."

Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin has also spoken out, saying last week that the trial would hurt Russia because the charges "question the foundations of market relations in Russia" and hark back to the Soviet planned economy.

"Navalny is not on trial for Kirov timber... he clearly is on trial for opposition activity, for de-facto becoming Vladimir Putin's main opponent," fellow opposition activist Ilya Yashin told reporters in Kirov.

The head of the timber company involved in the case, Pyotr Ofitserov, has gone on trial with Navalny on the same charges.

Navalny's team has posted his entire chargesheet online and insists all the accusations are politically motivated.

The spokesman of the powerful Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, bluntly acknowledged earlier this month that Navalny was specially targeted for investigation because of his repeated "teasing" of the Kremlin.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov meanwhile lamented to state television on Monday that "we have no (opposition) leaders who are ready to take responsibility".

State pollsters VTsIOM found in a survey published Tuesday that 51 percent of Russians had "negative" feelings about Navalny, 20 percent more than the same time last year.

Nevertheless, the poll demonstrated growing awareness of Navalny due to his high-profile trial. Fifty-three percent said they knew who Navalny was compared with 37 percent in a different survey last month.