By Gabriela Baczynska
KIROV, Russia (Reuters) - Protest leader Alexei Navalny accused the Russian authorities of laying trumped-up charges against him at the start of trial on Wednesday which he says is part of clampdown on the opposition by Vladimir Putin.
The anti-corruption blogger was calm and defiant in a 40-minute appearance in court in the provincial city of Kirov before Judge Sergei Blinov adjourned proceedings until April 24 to give the defence more time to prepare its case.
Navalny, 36, could face 10 years in jail if convicted of stealing 16 million roubles (332,442.47 pounds)) from a timber firm in Kirov in 2009 while working for the liberal regional governor.
He did not make any defiant statement to the judge as proceedings got under way but told reporters after the hearing was adjourned: "The case is totally falsified, trumped up. I am completely innocent."
Reiterating his belief that the court will convict him regardless of the evidence, he said: "I am sure that during the court hearings my innocence will be proven, but let's see what decision the judge makes."
Navalny is the most prominent opposition leader to be tried since anti-Putin protests began 16 months ago and some critics have drawn parallels with the Soviet authorities' persecution of political rivals.
The protests have faded but rallies were planned in Navalny's support in Moscow and Kirov on Wednesday, although it is not clear whether he has much backing or sympathy among the wider public. His case has so far not prompted any mass rallies.
The anti-corruption blogger chatted casually with reporters as he entered the court in the city of Kirov 900 km (550 miles) northeast of Moscow, wearing an open-necked shirt and no tie or jacket.
His wife Yulia was in the packed, newly redecorated courtroom, as was opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and a host of reporters.
"I really value your presence here," Navalny told the reporters in the Leninsky Court, asking whether they had spent the night in a nearby cafe to ensure they got into the small courtroom.
He took a picture of the courtroom with his mobile phone and posted it to a following of some 345,000 Twitter users online. Proceedings then got under way, with the judge asking Navalny to confirm his identity.
Navalny says the trial in Kirov, a drab city dominated by square and grey Soviet-era buildings, is intended to increase pressure on the opposition following Putin's return to the Kremlin last May after four years as prime minister.
Navalny accuses Putin, 60, of orchestrating the trial and says he expects to be convicted. He says the best he can hope for is a suspended sentence although even this would keep him out of elections.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has denied the president uses the courts for political ends and says the Kremlin leader will not be following the trial.
Navalny started campaigning against state corruption in 2007 and emerged as the most powerful speaker during rallies calling for an end to Putin's long domination of Russia last year.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Timothy Heritage)