Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny says the charges of embezzlement against him had been ordered by Vladimir Putin. The drama is not being played out in Moscow, but a small northwestern town 900 kilometers away.
Navalny, who is 36, is the most prominent Russian opposition leader to be tried since protests against Putin began 16 months ago.
He is accused of stealing around 16 million roubles (388,500 euros) from a timber company in the Kirov region in 2009, while working as an advisor to the local governor. Navalny, himself an anti-corruption blogger, faces up to 10 years in jail. He denies the charges and has accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the trial, and expects to be convicted.
During the start of his trial in Kirov on Wednesday, Navalny greeted reporters and took a picture of the courtroom with his mobile phone and posted it online. The word on the mobile phone, pictured above, reads "Thief."
"I really value your presence here," Navalny told the media.
The trial was adjourned shortly after it began, for a week until April 24. Navalny's lawyer asked the court for the adjournment because her client had not been given enough time to read the case files.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has denied the president uses the courts for political means and says Putin will not be following the trial.
Blogging in Russia's political debate
Navalny started campaigning against corruption in Russia in 2007, and during rallies last year - calling for an end to Putin's long domination - emerged as the campaign's most powerful speaker. He has been quick to realize the growing importance of the Internet in political debate.
His anti-corruption blogs, containing canny use of Moscow slang, have made him hugely popular online. However, recent polls show only one-third of Russians actually know who he is, meaning he still faces a struggle to be heard at the national level.
"If Navalny is sent to jail the Kremlin will have crossed a rubicon beyond which there will be an all-powerful authoritarian machine which will be hard, if not impossible, to stop," wrote the opposition weekly New Times.
Navalny himself gave an interview, published on Wednesday by the Gazeta.ru website. "The system will collapse but this could still take several years. Our task is to bring this closer," he told the site.
Perhaps Navalny's highest profile supporter is Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister who served under Putin between 2000 and 2011. He has said the case against Navalny "casts doubts on the basics of the market economy in Russia."
jr/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)