Russian opposition politician risks jail in key hearing

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny on Wednesday faces a crucial court hearing that could halt his soaring political career or even see him led away for up to five years in a penal colony.

The charismatic 37-year-old lawyer won 27 percent in Moscow mayoral polls last month, a surprisingly strong result that put him in second place behind pro-Kremlin incumbent Sergei Sobyanin.

His populist campaign played on anti-migrant moods and weariness with widespread corruption under President Vladimir Putin.

On Wednesday a regional court in the northern city of Kirov will at 0600 GMT begin hearing his appeal against his five-year sentence in a disputed fraud case.

The court could issue a shorter sentence or even a suspended one that would still bar Navalny -- who has openly declared presidential ambitions -- from standing for office in the foreseeable future.

In the worst case scenario, the father-of-two could spend the next five years doing menial labour in one of Russia's far-flung penal colonies.

In July, Kirov's Lenin district court found Navalny and a businessman associate, Pyotr Ofitserov, guilty of embezzlement over a 2009 timber deal and sentenced both to five years.

Guards snapped handcuffs on the men and locked them in a detention centre.

But in a surprise decision, Kirov's regional court freed them the next day, arguing they should remain free pending their appeal. This unprecedented concession allowed Navalny to stand for mayor.

Few are willing to predict the outcome in a case rich in dramatic twists. The appeal hearing was initially set for last week then postponed at the last moment to allow Navalny to attend a separate hearing in Moscow.

Russian law enforcers have opened a stream of criminal cases against Navalny in what looks like an attempt to neutralise an opposition figure seen as a potential national force.

Navalny rose to political stardom at mass protests in the winter of 2011/2012 against Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term.

Independent pollsters Levada this month found that 51 percent of Russians had heard of Navalny, taking him far beyond his initial audience of Internet-savvy middle class Russian in Moscow.

Navalny, a father of two young children, has retained an icy calm over the prospect of a prison term.

He told Moskovsky Komsomolets daily on Monday that he thought it was unlikely he would be jailed immediately.

"You can't rule it out, but it is all the same an unlikely scenario," he said.

But he revealed that he would be taking a bag packed with prison essentials such as trainers with Velcro fasteners into court.

"Of course I'll be going with my stuff, because if it does suddenly finish in a day, I wouldn't want to end up in a detention centre without food or my things."

"All the things that I bought for detention in summer are still lying there."

His co-defendant in the case, Ofitserov, wrote on Facebook that "there could be one (hearing) that ends either with a penal colony or home. Or there could be 10... no one knows for sure."

"My lawyer told me to go with a bag so I will walk in with a bundle."