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Russian Protest Leader Alexei Navalny Is Charged
Russia's top investigative agency has opened a new criminal probe against opposition leader Alexei Navalny on allegations of theft.
Mr Navalny, a corruption-fighting lawyer and popular blogger, has been charged with organising large-scale theft and ordered to stay in Moscow.
The State Investigative Committee says he is suspected of organising a scheme to steal assets from a state timber company.
It is conducting a probe into the opposition leader's time as an unofficial adviser to a small deal struck by a regional government in 2009.
Mr Navalny, 36, allegedly urged a local state-owned timber firm to enter a contract with another company that led to a loss of 1.3m rubles (£25,700).
He is not accused of profiting personally in the case but of misleading the local governor whom he advised on an informal basis.
Central Kirov region governor Nikita Belykh has dismissed the case as a form of political pressure and stressed that local investigators had long concluded that Mr Navalny had not committed any crime.
But investigators have outlined two counts that include "misappropriation or embezzlement... committed by an organised group or on an especially large scale".
The charges carry a prison sentence of five to 10 years.
Investigators had originally probed Mr Navalny over a smaller offence that could have put him behind bars for five years.
He denies any wrongdoing and said on leaving court: "Something absolutely absurd and very strange has happened because they have completely changed the story behind the charge."
The blogger has played a key role in rallying Russia's young Internet generation against Vladimir Putin's rule.
During the winter, he spearheaded a series of opposition rallies in Moscow that drew up to 100,000 to the streets ahead of the presidential election in March. He also coined the widely-used phrase "party of thieves and crooks" about Mr Putin's United Russia party.
The homes of several opposition leaders, including Navalny's, were searched by police in Moscow after an anti-government rally back in June.
The searches were days after Mr Putin signed a controversial new law imposing heavy fines on anti-government protesters as well launching an internet crackdown.
The charges against Mr Navalny come as three women who performed an anti-Putin "punk prayer" in Russia's main cathedral are being tried for hooliganism.
Critics are also likely to draw comparisons to a previous case when another key Putin opponent, the oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed.
Khodorkovsky was convicted of tax fraud in 2005 and jailed for eight years. He was due for release in 2011 but was put on trial again in 2009, this time for money laundering and embezzling property.
He was jailed for another 14 years, to run concurrently, moving his release date back to 2017.
Critics claimed the move was politically motivated and aimed at ensuring the tycoon remained in prison until after Mr Putin ran again for president earlier this year.