Russian governor backs former advisor Navalny in court

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday received a boost in his controversial trial for embezzlement when a witness for the prosecution testified in support of the Kremlin critic.

The testimony by Kirov region governor Nikita Belykh was the latest to undermine the prosecution case, which the opposition has denounced as a set-up ordered by the Kremlin to end Navalny's political career.

A charismatic speaker at mass rallies against President Vladimir Putin and whistleblower on corruption, Navalny faces up to a decade in prison if he is convicted of causing a 16 million ruble (385,000 euro, $500,000) loss to Kirov budget in a timber deal.

But in dramatic testimony, Belykh denied that the opposition leader's activities could have been harmful to the Kirov region.

"I have no basis to draw such conclusions," Belykh said during cross-examination by Navalny's lawyer Olga Mikhailova, cited by the RAPSI legal news agency.

He was the latest in a series of prosecution witnesses who have ended up backing Navalny's case or have said they have forgotten events.

"All 35 witnesses for the prosecution have spoken on my side (and) did not perjure themselves," Navalny said in a break in the trial, Novaya Gazeta opposition newspaper reported.

But he cynically questioned whether this would make any difference, implying that the Kremlin had already ordered a conviction.

"I am not sure that the verdict will be written by the remarkable judge (Sergei) Blinov and that this will be taken into account."

Belykh is a liberal politician who was appointed by then president Dmitry Medvedv, in a highly unusual move, to head the region in 2008. Navalny worked as Belykh's unpaid advisor in 2009.

Russian media reported that Belykh had repeatedly postponed his court appearance and was widely expected to give written evidence only.

Navalny, himself a lawyer, grilled Belykh for close to an hour on what exactly his job description was.

Belykh said he had not read all the court papers but damningly said he had not seen evidence of the alleged crime.

The governor said he gave Navalny verbal permission to work on a strategy to improve sales from the debt-ridden forestry company Kirovles, alleged to have entered into an unprofitable deal in a plot involving Navalny.

Kirovles was in an "extremely pitiful" state and needed reforming, Belykh said.

Navalny was not a state employee but an advisor working on a voluntary basis, he stressed.

Casting doubt on the prosecution's argument, Belykh said that Navalny had tense relations with the head of Kirovles, Vyacheslav Opalev, who has testified that Navalny acted as his accomplice in the complex case.

"You could not call the relationship between Navalny and Opalev close and warm," he said, cited by the Interfax news agency.

Opalev was convicted of embezzlement late last year but received a suspended sentence on a plea bargain. He also implicated Navalny in the case.

Belykh raised the fact that Opalev's daughter worked in the company alleged to have bought timber from Kirovles at a non-market price.

Belykh said he had a closer relationship with Navalny than with his other unpaid advisors in 2009 because Navalny was the only one who lived in the region and went on trips with him.

Nevertheless he testily told Navalny that "if you wrote a bit less about yourself, everything would be a lot simpler," Kommersant business daily reported on its website.

At one point, Belykh hesitated, unsure how to refer to Navalny, and Navalny prompted him: "the defendant Navalny".

Belykh's testimony came after one of his deputies, Sergei Shcherchkov, said in court last week that Navalny was too lowly in status to have controlled the activities of Kirovles.