Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Vladimir Putin’s critic Alexei Navalny faces fraud charges


The Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny will face arrest if he returns to Russia after investigators charged him yesterday with large-scale fraud.

Mr Navalny, 44, was accused of embezzling 588 million roubles (£5.8 million) in public donations to his FBK anti-corruption group. Investigators said he had spent the money on foreign property, holidays and other unspecified items. He could be jailed for ten years if found guilty.

Mr Navalny is recovering in Germany after what he says was a Kremlin-sponsored attempt to kill him with novichok nerve agent in August.

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“I said straight away: they will try to imprison me for not dying and then seeking out my killers,” Mr Navalny said yesterday. “This is because I proved that Putin was behind [the attempt on his life]. He is a thief who is ready to kill those who refuse to stay silent about his thievery.”

The Kremlin says that accusations that it tried to kill Mr Navalny are “unacceptable”. Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, has alleged that Mr Navalny is a CIA agent but has not provided evidence to back up his claim.

The fraud charges came shortly after Mr Navalny was warned that he could face jail for failing to comply with a last-minute ultimatum to report to a probation office in Moscow.

Russian prison service officials said on Monday afternoon that Mr Navalny would be in violation of the terms of a suspended sentence from 2014 if he did not attend a probation office by 9am yesterday. They said that a failure to appear could result in the conversion of his three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence into an actual prison term.

The prison service, citing The Lancet medical journal, said that Mr Navalny had recovered from his “illness” by October 12 and had no excuse for not keeping his appointment.

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Critics said that the new charges and the ultimatum were part of an attempt to keep Mr Navalny out of Russia. The opposition leader has pledged to return to continue his decade-long battle to dislodge Mr Putin, who has ruled Russia for 21 years.

Mr Navalny was initially sent to prison on the 2014 fraud charges but was released the next day after about 10,000 of his supporters gathered outside parliament. His sentence was later commuted on appeal. However, his younger brother, Oleg, spent three and a half years in prison on the same charges and Mr Navalny has accused the Kremlin of taking him “hostage”.

Some analysts say the Kremlin fears that Mr Navalny could inspire protests during parliamentary elections scheduled for September. Allegations of vote-rigging at the 2011 elections prompted the biggest demonstrations in Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin is preparing to train 200,000 election monitors to ensure that loyal regional leaders do not deliver improbable landslides for Mr Putin’s ruling United Russia party, according to the Kommersant newspaper.

About 30 per cent of Russians plan to vote for United Russia, polls suggest. The party won more than 80 per cent in several regions in 2016, according to official results. “The most important thing is not to allow overly high results,” the newspaper said, citing sources within the presidential administration.

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