Top Putin foe awaits explosive fraud trial verdict

Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny on Thursday hears the verdict in his trial on embezzlement charges which could see one of the top foes of President Vladimir Putin eliminated from politics and jailed for up to six years.

Navalny, who rose to prominence in Russia with a blog exposing corruption, insists that the charges of embezzling timber while he worked as an unpaid advisor to the northern Kirov region have been fabricated to punish him for daring to challenge Putin.

The father of two, 37, says he expects to be convicted by judge Sergei Blinov, who has not handed down a single acquittal in his judicial career. The only doubt is whether he will be given a suspended term or sent to jail.

"I am ready for any verdict," Navalny told Moscow Echo Radio in an interview ahead of the hearing.

"I understand that it will be a guilty verdict. There is just this curious alternative -- either a suspended sentence from the fabricated case or a prison term from the fabricated case."

The verdict comes as Navalny campaigns against ruling party incumbent Sergei Sobyanin to become mayor of Moscow in elections on September 8, his first crack at winning high office.

But any conviction, including a suspended term, would mean Navalny could not run and his supporters have argued that the unusually fast-tracked trial that only started in April is aimed at ensuring he does not take part.

Blinov will read out the verdict in the small provincial courthouse in Kirov, a usually sleepy outpost 600 kilometres from Moscow which is expected to be swarmed by journalists and Navalny supporters on Thursday, with flights and hotels booked out.

A high security presence is expected there and in Moscow, with supporters warning of protests should there be a guilty verdict.

The trial against Navalny -- who also faces several other probes yet to come to court -- is seen by the opposition as part of Putin's crackdown on the opposition since he returned to the Kremlin for a third term in May 2012.

-- 'Navalny is someone like you' --

Navalny's streetwise rhetoric and populist charisma meant he emerged as the most effective of the opposition leaders who led the unprecedented protests against Putin that broke out in December 2011.

The protests have now died down but Navalny has boldly stated he wants to challenge Putin in the next presidential elections in 2018 and has shown no fear in making the most powerful enemies.

He coined the catchy phrase "party of crooks and thieves" to describe the ruling United Russia party and speaks the slang-tinted language of ordinary people rather than officials.

In typical style, Navalny last week turned the filing of his papers for the mayoral elections into a theatrical event, joined by hundreds of supporters with whom he raucously chanted "one for all and all for one!".

Prosecutors have called for a six-year prison colony sentence and one million ruble ($30,000) fine for Navalny for conspiring to steal 10,000 cubic metres of timber.

In a closing statement to the court that sounded as much a campaign speech as a legal argument, Navalny denounced the charges as absurd and pledged that he would "destroy the feudal system in Russia".

Even some within the opposition have criticised Navalny for his sometimes nationalist rhetoric, lacking a clear vision for the country beyond cracking down on corruption and bluntly vowing to jail opponents should he win power.

"I am sure that sooner or later I will have them jailed," he told Moscow Echo.

Navalny still has a huge challenge to win nationwide recognition beyond his powerbase in Moscow, where he has become a hero for many in the Internet-savvy middle class who yearn to live in a different Russia.

Seeking to present himself as an ordinary guy, Navalny lives with his wife Yulia -- who has become an increasingly visible presence at his side -- in a humdrum and otherwise unremarkable Moscow suburb called Maryino.

"Navalny is someone like you - he is not someone backed by oligarchs and bureaucrats," says his campaign literature for the mayoral elections. "Let's change Russia, starting with Moscow."