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By Gabriela Baczynska
KIROV, Russia (Reuters) - Russian prosecutors demanded a six-year jail sentence for protest leader Alexei Navalny on theft charges on Friday at a trial that he says is intended to sideline him as a rival to President Vladimir Putin.
Prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov did not seek the maximum 10-year sentence, but a six-year term would keep the anti-corruption campaigner in jail until after the next presidential election scheduled in 2018.
Navalny, the most prominent opposition leader to be tried in post-Soviet Russia, denies charges of stealing 16 million roubles ($482,000) from a local timber firm that he was advising in 2009 while working for the liberal regional governor.
Summing up for the prosecution at the end of a two-month trial in the industrial city of Kirov, 550 miles northeast of Moscow, Bogdanov told the Leninsky court: "The evidence considered in the trial fully proves that Navalny ... committed a crime.
"I ask the court to find Alexei Navalny guilty ... and sentence him to six years in prison and a fine of 1 million roubles."
Navalny, 37, exchanged nervous smiles with his wife Yulia. When a short break in proceedings was declared, she embraced him, and he then turned to his lawyer and said: "Overall, why be surprised? I'd expected five or six years."
Dressed casually in beige trousers and a light shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he told reporters: "I still hope everything will be fine."
Navalny's trial is widely seen as the most significant in Russia since oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed in 2005 for fraud and tax evasion after falling out with Putin. His $40 billion oil firm, Yukos, was broken up and sold off, mainly into state hands.
Navalny, who organized the biggest anti-Putin protests since the former KGB spy rose to power in 2000, has suggested the president ordered the trial to stop his criticism of what he calls a political class of "swindlers and thieves".
THORN IN PUTIN'S SIDE
The Kremlin has denied using the courts for political ends and says it does not interfere in criminal cases.
But Navalny's lawyers say there is no evidence against him and point out that the investigation had at one stage been dropped, before unexpectedly being revived. They also complain that a large number of witnesses called by the defense were not allowed to appear.
"The nature of the charges, the lack of real evidence from the prosecution, the judge's dismissal of nearly all defense motions - all this proves this trial does not satisfy the rules of justice and is aimed at only one thing: to publicly discredit and sentence a famous civic and political activist for political motives," defense lawyer Olga Mikhailova said.
Tall and clean-cut, Navalny has been a thorn in the side of the government since starting to campaign online against state corruption in 2007.
He established himself as a powerful speaker at the anti-Putin demonstrations that flared in December 2011, although they have faded since Putin's presidential election victory in March 2012. Since then, Putin has reasserted his authority and several opposition leaders have been charged with criminal offences.
Navalny has said he has presidential ambitions and wants to run for Moscow mayor in an election in September. Putin, 60, is eligible to seek a fourth presidential term in 2018, potentially extending his rule over Russia to nearly a quarter of a century.
Navalny is popular among Russia's growing middle class and urban youth, but it is unclear whether he has much support among the working class and in the provinces, Putin's power base.
Navalny has in the past been accused of having nationalist tendencies and the independent polling group Levada found last month that only 3 percent of people would vote for him as Moscow mayor.
Since Putin's return to the Kremlin last May after four years as prime minister, two members of the dissident band Pussy Riot have been jailed, a prominent protest leader has been thrown out of parliament and another is under house arrest.
Parliament has pushed through tough penalties and fines for demonstrators who step out of line.
($1 = 33.2000 Russian roubles)
(Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Kevin Liffey)