Russian prosecutors on Monday accused protest leader Alexei Navalny of breaking the law in his campaign for Moscow mayor by receiving donations from foreign nationals, adding to the legal woes of President Vladimir Putin's top critic.
Navalny, 37, a star speaker at anti-Putin rallies who rose to fame through anti-corruption investigations, denied the claim and said that all funding for the September 8 polls was being gathered in strict accordance with the law.
The charismatic lawyer is running against a Kremlin-backed incumbent after being dramatically released from prison last month following his conviction on disputed embezzlement charges.
"A check has confirmed information about foreign financing of Alexei Navalny," the prosecutor general's office said in a statement published on its website.
Under Russian law, it is illegal for a candidate to spend money donated by foreigners on a political campaign.
The statement said 300 foreign nationals and anonymous donors based in 46 countries including the United States gave Navalny money using a Russia-based Internet payment system.
Navalny, who is shaping up to be the main challenger to pro-Putin mayor Sergei Sobyanin in the election, denied the claim.
"The financing of our campaign is carried out strictly according to the law and is legally absolutely impeccable," he wrote on his blog.
"All the payments are checked by Moscow's electoral commission. If they tell us the payment is illegal, there's a missing second name or a date of birth or especially citizenship, then we return the payment. That's it."
An interior ministry spokesman told the ITAR-TASS news agency that its specialists were now studying the documents sent by the prosecutors about the alleged improper financing.
The interior ministry will now decide whether to open a criminal case over the issue.
Navalny has conducted a highly professional campaign for mayor, taking to Moscow's streets to meet voters.
He was sentenced to five years in prison last month after being convicted of embezzlement in a widely disputed verdict. In a surprise decision, a higher court temporarily granted him freedom, allowing his mayoral campaign to go ahead.
Navalny called the prosecutors' claim a tactic to make sure that Sobyanin wins at least 50 percent of the vote to avoid the elections going into an unpredictable second round.
"Sobyanin has a great temptation to remove me from the elections because he is scared of a second round," Navalny said in an interview with Moscow Echo radio.
The Moscow electoral commission's website said that Navalny had returned more than 2 million rubles ($61,000) worth of illegal donations as of last week.
His campaign fund stood at $957,000 while Sobyanin's was worth more than $3 million.
Asya Melkumova, spokeswoman of the Internet payment system Yandex Money, told Moscow Echo radio that prosecutors had not contacted the company.
She questioned why prosecutors talked about payments coming from IP addresses in foreign countries, saying this did not prove the nationality of users.
Sobyanin called the polls early, hoping to prove he had the support of Moscow's citizens, and said that Navalny should be allowed to stand.
But Navalny last week needled Sobyanin by calling for a probe into a large apartment owned by the mayor's teenage daughter, which he estimated was worth more than $5 million. Sobyanin's team said he acquired it legitimately.
Sobyanin has refused to take part in televised debates with Navalny and other candidates, the first of which was due to be held Monday evening.
Navalny is predicted to win less than 10 percent of the vote in the September 8 election, while Sobyanin is forecast to gain more than half the votes required to give him an automatic victory, according to opinion polls.
Prosecutors launched the probe against Navalny at the request of nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party of Russia generally backs the Kremlin and has a candidate standing in the race.
"He pretends to fight corruption, but isn't it corruption when he receives money from foreigners?" Zhirinovsky said in a statement on the party's website.