Russian President Vladimir Putin denied he’s resorting to Stalin-era tactics by locking up opponents as a leading critic, Alexey Navalny, ridiculed fraud charges he’s facing.
“Stalinism is about a cult of personality and mass violations of the law, with repression and camps,” Putin said today in response to a question about Navalny during a televised call-in show that lasted almost four hours and 50 minutes. “There’s no such thing in Russia and I hope there never will be, no one is being jailed for political reasons.”
Navalny, 36, faces as much as 10 years in prison over charges that he defrauded state timber company Kirovles of 16 million rubles ($514,000). He denies any wrongdoing and says the case is payback for helping lead the biggest protests against Putin’s 13-year rule in 2011.
The anti-corruption blogger and lawyer today cross-examined a key prosecution witness, prompting laughter in court when former Kirovles general director Vyacheslav Opalev repeatedly failed to answer his questions.
Investigators allege Navalny and two others embezzled more than 10,000 cubic meters of wood products at state-owned Kirovles between May and September 2009. The Investigative Committee said in February 2011 on its website that Navalny had threatened the manager of the timber company with dismissal to pressure him into signing a contract with another company, Vyatskaya Lesnaya Kompaniya.
The lawyer was working at the time as an unpaid adviser on corporate governance in Kirov, 900 kilometers (560 miles) northeast of Moscow, to regional governor Nikita Belykh, who’s defended Navalny.
“How and when did I demand and force you to cooperate with Vyatskaya Lesnaya Kompaniya?” Navalny said on the third day of his trial in Kirov. After Opalev replied that he didn’t remember, Navalny continued: “Well, did I say: ‘I’ll fire you, I’ll eat you?’”
Federal investigators twice overruled regional prosecutors who’d dropped the case against Navalny. He yesterday denounced the proceedings as “political revenge” and vowed to keep up his campaign to uncover fraud at state companies.
The trial follows the case against three members of all-female punk group Pussy Riot, who were convicted last August after a protest targeting Putin inside Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral. One was later freed on appeal.
Protesters are also being prosecuted for taking part in anti-Putin rallies that ended in violent clashes. One of them, Konstantin Lebedev, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years today for organizing mass unrest in last May, Interfax reported.
Russian authorities opened a fourth criminal case against Navalny on April 18, with all relating to separate cases of alleged fraud. The trial will be conducted “absolutely objectively,” according to Putin, who said anti-corruption activists must be completely honest themselves or their work turns into “political self-advertising.”