Prosecutor seeks 6 years jail for Russian protest leader Navalny

A Russian prosecutor on Friday demanded a six-year jail sentence for top opposition leader Alexei Navalny on embezzlement charges he says are meant to sideline him from politics.

Judge Sergei Blinov scheduled the verdict hearing for July 18.

Observers say the trial of President Vladimir Putin's top critic, who has rallied thousands of people at opposition protests, appears to be an attempt to jail him before elections in September in which he is seeking to run for Moscow mayor.

Tensions in the stuffy courtroom in the Kirov region 600 kilometres (370 miles) northeast of Moscow escalated when the prosecutor said Navalny should be sent to a prison colony for six years and pay a fine of one million rubles ($30,000) for conspiring with co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov to steal 10,000 cubic metres of timber worth 16 million rubles.

"That would be just and proportionate," said prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov, adding that Navalny should be arrested in the courtroom immediately after the verdict. He sought five years for Ofitserov, a businessman.

The defence has little hopes that judge Blinov would rule in favour of or give Navalny a suspended sentence.

"Neither me nor my client have any illusions," defence lawyer Svetlana Davydova said emotionally as she faced the judge, accusing the prosecution of "cynicism".

Responding to the charges, Navalny said the prosecution had failed to prove any wrongdoing on his part, calling the trial "absurd".

"I did not gain a single kopeck," he said, arguing that the only witness who testified against him was trying to escape punishment for his own corrupt dealings in the timber firm.

"How can you steal 16 million in such a way that nobody gained any money?" Navalny asked.

"I won't even go into the obvious political motivation of this case," he continued. "There are many similar cases against me... but the scope of the absurdity has to have limits."

The charismatic 37-year-old stands accused of causing a loss to the budget of the northern Kirov region in a timber deal in 2009 when he acted as an unpaid advisor to the governor.

Navalny, a lawyer by training, has been leading his own defence and has repeatedly tried to prove that no one was hurt in the business deal. He has also argued that his own role in the transaction was limited.

The Kirov governor -- liberal-leaning veteran of politics Nikita Belykh -- has testified in court as a witness for the defence.

Navalny quickly emerged as the star of the anti-Putin street protests that erupted in Moscow in late 2011, drawing huge crowds with some of the most fervent speeches against the former KGB spy's 13-year-rule.

He has branded the ruling United Russia party as "the party of crooks and thieves" -- a viral catchphrase that was mentioned on Kremlin-controlled television.

Navalny also won a strong Internet following by blogging about corruption and starting a movement devoted to unearthing extreme examples of lavish state spending by lawmakers and ministers.

His growing clout has led some observers to predict a long political future and the protest leader himself has not ruled out a potential presidential run.

But he has first set his sights on the Moscow mayoral seat in snap elections that have been called for September 8, to run against incumbent pro-Kremlin mayor Sergei Sobyanin who, despite being a member of United Russia, chose not to run on the ticket of the increasingly unpopular party.

Even a suspended sentence would bar Navalny from running in elections for the duration of his conviction term.