Putin foe Navalny denies 'absurd' charge at trial

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Monday dismissed the embezzlement charge against him as absurd as he faced cross-examination for the first time at his trial in the northern city of Kirov.

Dressed in a white shirt and jeans, Navalny answered questions for more than an hour. Asked by the judge Sergei Blinov for his general view of the charge against him, he said simply: "It's absurd."

The charismatic star speaker at protests against President Vladimir Putin is accused over a 2009 timber deal when he acted as an unpaid advisor to the Kirov governor. He claims the charge, for which he faces up to 10 years in prison, is politically motivated.

On Saturday a tiny liberal party announced it was nominating Navalny as a candidate for Moscow mayor in September 8 polls, a campaign that could be hindered by the criminal hearings.

Navalny cannot run for office if he is found guilty, even if he is handed a suspended sentence.

A lawyer by profession, Navalny responded confidently to questions on his involvement in alleged collusion by two timber companies, KirovLes and VLK, to defraud the regional budget of half a million dollars.

"I never received any funds or rewards, whether material or non-material, from working with VLK and KirovLes," Navalny said.

He also accused the convicted ex-head of KirovLes, Vyacheslav Opalev, who has testified against Navalny in a plea-bargain, of lying.

"Opalev gave false testimony against me," Navalny said.

The showcase trial has so far not gone to plan as key witnesses called by the prosecution failed to confirm Navalny's guilt.

His former employer, liberal-leaning governor Nikita Belykh, said in court that he had seen no evidence of wrongdoing by Navalny.

Prosecutors and the judge on Monday focused on the nature of Navalny's work as an unpaid advisor and whether he had sway in the administration.

"Everyone knew my status very well... Everyone knew that I could ask questions at meetings, I could ask for documents, but I couldn't give anyone any instructions or orders," he said.

Smiling, judge Blinov asked Navalny whether he was "one of the bosses."

Navalny parried: "Is the presidential administration a boss for you?", implying that the judge was influenced by the Kremlin.

"You answer the questions and I ask them," said the judge.

Neither the judge nor the prosecutors asked Navalny directly about the substance of the charge.

"Did you notice, they didn't ask me a single question about the 16 million (rubles) and so on?" Navalny wrote on Twitter after the cross-examination finished.