Russian official: Putin foe targeted for probe

Apr 12, 2013, 5:20 AM EDT
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny listens to a question during an interview at the Echo Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station in Moscow, Russia, Monday, April 8, 2013.
(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW (AP) — The spokesman for Russia's chief investigative body says that a criminal probe of a Russian opposition leader was triggered by his fierce public stance, which authorities previously denied.

Lawyer and blogger Alexei Navalny exposed official corruption and spearheaded a series of massive protests in Moscow against Putin's return to the presidency in 2011 and 2012. Navalny, 36, goes on trial on Wednesday on charges of leading an organized crime group that stole timber worth 16 million rubles (about $500,000).

In an interview published Friday in Izvestia daily, Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee, said investigators would not have looked into a "banal theft" if that wasn't for Navalny's reports alleging government corruption.

"If a person tries hard to attract attention, or if I can put it, teases authorities — 'look at me, I'm so good compared to everyone else' — well, then one gets more interested in his past and the process of exposing him naturally gets faster," Markin said.

The Investigative Committee ran a probe into Navalny's alleged embezzlement from a state-owned timber company in the Kirov region from 2011 to May 2012, when the case was closed. It was reopened a few months later after the agency's chief publicly harangued investigators for closing that probe.

The Investigative Committee works only with high-profile cases of major violent and economic crimes. The case like Navalny's would normally be handled by local authorities.

Navalny has denied the charges, calling them politically motivated.

In a blog post reacting to Markin's interview, Navalny said the investigator was confused about what the actual charge is. Markin mentioned that Navalny "forced" the timber firm to sell its produce at an artificially low price while the lawyer is charged with stealing the timber.

"This shows that they themselves are confused about how exactly the Investigative Committee is framing the case," Navalny said.