Russia: Opposition Figure Faces Theft and Laundering Charges

Russia's Investigative Committee announced Tuesday that Russian blogger and opposition figure Alexei Navalny faces new theft and money laundering charges, the AP reports.

The Investigative Committee, Russia's main investigative agency, filed charges against Navalny and his brother Oleg for allegedly taking advantage of a Russian subsidiary of the French company Yves Rocher.

The brothers are accused of charging exorbitant shipping prices and swindling more than 26 million rubles (more than US$810,000) from the cosmetics company. Additionally, they are accused of defrauding the Russian firm MPK of about four million rubles, or US$125,000, and laundering 21 million rubles, or about US$656,000.

Navalny, 37, dismissed the charges as politically motivated. "It is absolute nonsense when the commercial activities that my brother conducted over three years without any complaints against him are suddenly declared to be fraud," he asserted in an interview with Russian radio station Echo of Moscow.

"In a sense, it's good news," he wrote on his blog. "It shows that we are doing the right thing and they are afraid of us." The charges, which have a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, were an attempt to "terrorize," Navalny said.

The BBC reports that the blogger and lawyer emerged as one of the strongest opposition voices in Russia, critiquing the Kremlin and running for mayor of Moscow in 2013. Navalny rose to prominence exposing corruption and criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and other politicians, organizing street protests following the 2011 parliamentary elections and infuriating the Russian political establishment.

The Moscow mayoral hopeful achieved 27 percent of the vote in the 2013 election, finishing second against Kremlin-backed incumbent Sergey Sobyanin. Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in July during the campaign, which officially barred him from public office and carried a sentence of five years. Navalny dropped out of the race and declared a boycott of the election following his conviction. He disputed the official final result, which declared Sobyanin the winner with 51 percent of the vote.

A Russian appeals court suspended Navalny's sentence earlier in October, although the conviction, and by extension the ban from public office, was upheld.

Human Rights Watch said that Navalny's embezzlement conviction was a part of a politically motivated and widespread crackdown on the opposition. "It is impossible to see this case through any lens other than a political one," the NGO declared. "Russia’s new laws are aimed at putting public life in Russia under greater government control, and Navalny’s prosecution is meant to silence a leader and messenger."