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Russian investigators on Friday launched a criminal probe after a raid on the home of top opposition leader Alexei Navalny yielded an allegedly stolen artwork.
Navalny is currently under house arrest over unconnected fraud charges and allies say the latest police move is designed to ramp up pressure on the fierce Kremlin critic and his crusading anti-corruption organisation.
Investigators, police and agents from the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, arrived at Navalny's Moscow flat at 4:00 am, lawyer Vadim Kobzev told AFP.
He said Navalny opened the door two hours later when police "began to break" it in and they then proceeded to search the flat, apparently in connection with a fraud probe.
But Russia's Investigative Committee later announced it was launching a criminal investigation into an obscure drawing found at the 38-year-old lawyer's home that was allegedly stolen from public display in a provincial town.
The rudimentary sketch titled 'A bad and a good person' -- which allies say Navalny received for his birthday earlier this month -- was reported stolen by its creator after it disappeared from a street in the town of Vladimir.
"Today in the course of the search at the home of Alexei Navalny the stolen picture was found, confiscated and added as material evidence in a criminal case," said a statement from the committee, Russia's equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US.
Investigators said they were probing the circumstances of the alleged theft and "all the people involved in the stealing of property."
- 'Local oddball' -
Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in July 2013 and given a five-year suspended jail sentence. He is currently being tried in another fraud case involving cosmetics firm Yves Rocher, during which he has been put under house arrest and banned from using the phone or Internet.
He and his supporters charge that the cases are politically motivated and aimed at preventing them from taking part in political activities and exposing official corruption.
As part of the conditions of his house arrest he is banned from communicating publicly but colleagues and his wife update his website and popular Twitter account and on Friday posted a picture of him, smiling in a T-shirt in his living room as men in civilian clothing looked around and took notes.
The crude drawing at the centre of the probe depicts a "bad" and a "good" Russian side by side: the "bad" one is listening to music and wearing sunglasses, with the words "Internet", "money", and "car" floating around his head. The good one has a basket of fruits with the words "health" and "family."
Police in Vladimir told Interfax that the drawing was part of an "open-air improvised exhibit" and was reported stolen by local artist Sergei Sotov, leading to police action for its recovery.
Navalny's lawyer Kobzev called the artist a "local oddball" who puts his patriotic drawings on fences across town. Navalny's friends "gave him one of the drawings for his birthday," he said.
Pro-Kremlin news website LifeNews wrote Friday that the painting was "stolen" by Navalny's ally Georgy Alburov who could now face two years in prison for theft.
Kobzev said that Alburov could be facing reprisals after publishing an investigation into lavish mansions owned by pro-Kremlin lawmakers.
Navalny came second in last year's election for Moscow mayor, with 27 percent of the vote.
Russian authorities have not allowed him to register a party and earlier this month charged some of his closest associates, including Alburov, who wants to run for a seat in Moscow's municipal legislative body, with fraud linked to his crowd-funded mayoral campaign.