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Putin enemy escapes immediate threat of jail

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny escaped Thursday the imminent threat of jail when a court extended his arrest, but did not put the top critic of President Vladimir Putin in pre-trial detention.

The 37-year-old anti-corruption blogger, who has been under house arrest since February and banned from using the Internet, saw his detention extended until late October during a closed-door hearing, spokeswoman Anna Veduta told AFP.

Along with his brother Oleg, Navalny faces charges of stealing and laundering 27 million rubles ($756,500) from French cosmetics company Yves Rocher.

Navalny says the French firm submitted a complaint under pressure from the security service to protect its business in Russia but later withdrew the claim.

"I really don't understand why this process is continuing," Navalny told reporters on Thursday.

His lawyer had previously said the court could move to place him in a pre-trial jail already Thursday.

The activist, who shot to prominence during huge anti-Putin protests in 2011-2012, dismisses these and other charges against him as a Kremlin attempt to punish him.

A Moscow district court made the ruling despite a request from the prisons service to move Navalny to jail for violating the terms of his house arrest by using the Internet.

The judge took two hours to make her decision, said Navalny's team on Facebook, quipping she had to "make phone calls to her higher ups."

Critics have accused Kremlin of controlling courts and few expect a fair decision in the high-profile case.

Navalny's team cited the prisons service as saying that Navalny had violated the terms of his arrest by writing on social networks and publishing an article in the New York Times.

In March, Navalny published an opinion piece in the Times in which he criticised the "malign intent" of Putin and his policies in Crimea, urging the West to slap sanctions on the Russian president's close allies.

The day after his piece was published, Washington targeted officials and businessmen close to the Russian strongman.

The opposition leader's supporters fear that the second major case against Navalny will result in a lengthy jail term, a huge blow to Russia's already demoralised opposition.

-'No one wants a new Mandela'-

But Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group, said that Thursday's decision could mean the authorities so far believed that Navalny would represent a bigger threat if he were jailed.

"No one wants to turn him into Nelson Mandela," the analyst told AFP. "The political expediency of everything that is happening is aimed at vilifying him."

He said that Navalny could still go to jail when the Kremlin decides that the opposition activist's imprisonment would not lead to fresh rallies.

"The authorities still take public opinion into account."

Several thousand protesters rallied in central Moscow after Navalny was sentenced to five years in a penal colony on embezzlement charges in a separate case last July.

Protesters scrawled graffiti on the parliament building including "Putin is a thief."

On the eve of the new trial, Prominent author Boris Akunin released an open letter to Yves Rocher, asking why the French company let the Russian authorities use its name to discredit the blogger.

Yves Rocher Vostok told AFP on Wednesday it had filed a complaint against an "unknown person" to protect its interests and to have access to the investigation in a "case in which the company was likely to have been a victim."

The trial was adjourned until Monday.

Earlier Thursday, a separate Moscow court heard a complaint that Navalny damaged the reputation of a senior lawmaker from the ruling party by publishing what he called an investigation into his property.

The court sided with Sergei Neverov, deputy speaker with the Russian parliament's lower house, and ordered Navalny to publish a retraction.

In July, the activist was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in jail but walked free the following day in a surprise move that allowed him to run a high-profile campaign for Moscow mayor.

After Navalny came second in the election in September, polling more than 27 percent of the vote, a court converted his sentence into a suspended term.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140424/putin-enemy-escapes-immediate-threat-jail-0