MOSCOW – Far from the streets of Moscow where he galvanized tens of thousands in anti-government protests, Alexei Navalny faces trial this week on charges that could send him to prison for 10 years.
The trial, starting Wednesday in Kirov, 800 kilometers (500 miles) northeast of Moscow, accuses Navalny and his former colleague Pyotr Ofitserov of leading an organized criminal group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-run company.
The charges not only threaten him with serious prison time, but strike at the essence of his image as a vociferous anti-corruption campaigner.
Even before Navalny became a key figure in the anti-government protests that erupted in 2011, the lawyer was a persistent thorn in the establishment's side with his extensive blogging on Russia's staggering high-level corruption. Authorities admit the trial is connected to his prominent activities, although they deny overt political motivations.
Navalny, 36, insists the charges are a fabrication intended to silence him on the orders of President Vladimir Putin, who has cracked down on dissent since returning for a third term last year.
"Everyone's known for years that if Putin ever made the decision to shut me down, then he'll shut me down," Navalny said Monday.
Navalny's conviction appears all but certain. More than 99 percent of Russian trials end with a guilty verdict, according to Vadim Volkov and Kirill Titaev of the European University at St. Petersburg.
The charges were filed by the Investigative Committee, an FBI-like body solely accountable to Putin. Normally, the agency only handles high-profile crime and would leave a small alleged embezzlement case like Navalny's to local authorities. But since Putin's return to the presidency last May, the committee has become a highly politicized instrument at the front lines of his crackdown on dissent, filing charges against activists and loudly proclaiming their guilt in state-owned media.
In an interview Friday in the newspaper Izvestia, Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said investigators would not have looked into a "banal theft" if not for Navalny's investigations, which implicated high-ranking officials in 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 case stems from Navalny's role as an adviser to the governor of the region that includes the city of Kirov. Charges were first brought in May 2011, alleging that Navalny had forced Vyacheslav Opalev, director of the state-owned timber company Kirovles, to sign a disadvantageous contract that deprived the company of 1.3 million rubles ($40,000).
Investigators dismissed those charges in April 2012, then reopened them less than two months later on the directive of committee chairman Alexander Bastrykin. Navalny was officially charged in July, shortly after Bastrykin publicly harangued investigators for closing the case and told them to show Navalny "no mercy."
"Putin created a system under which everyone is too frightened to take responsibility," Navalny said. "He already gave the green light — get going and put them in jail — and they all started running around filing charges."
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian state television that Putin was not paying attention to Navalny's trial.
The new indictment holds that Navalny conspired with Opalev to launder the timber through a holding company headed by co-defendant Ofitserov, selling it for 16 million rubles less than it could have received without a middleman.
Opalev pleaded guilty and was given a four-year suspended sentence in December.
Navalny insists the very same evidence used against him shows that no theft was committed. "I can't imagine how they're going to prove this," he said.
Still, Opalev's plea sharply limits Navalny's defense options, blocking him from contesting evidence from Opalev's conviction. Since the question of Opalev's guilt was never examined in court, investigators never had to prove that a crime was committed.
Navalny says he has commissioned three independent analyses that exonerate him.
"This is hardly the KGB — they're PR guys, the important thing for them is to make a big point out of it," Navalny said of the investigators. "'If you think that we're going to be shy of blog posts about how the case is stitched up — well, we couldn't give a damn.'"
The presiding judge, Sergei Blinov, has issued 130 guilty verdicts and no acquittals in the last two years, according to the pro-Navalny magazine The New Times. Blinov is not holding any preliminary hearings, which Navalny's lawyers say is illegal. The only intrigue in the trial, Navalny says, will be whether he is jailed or given a suspended sentence to bar him from running for office.
The case has drawn widespread condemnation abroad and in Russia. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a former Russian presidential candidate who owns the New Jersey Nets, wrote on his blog Sunday that Russian law "is turning into a repressive machine" and called for Markin to be prosecuted instead of Navalny.
Nonetheless, the prospect of seeing its poster boy behind bars has done little to spur the divided and demoralized opposition. Instead of the intense fervor that surrounded the trial of punk rockers Pussy Riot for an anti-Putin protest in Moscow's cathedral last year, Navalny's supporters have met the case with despair.
"I can't think how we can all pull ourselves out of this nightmare," journalist Yuri Saprykin wrote on the Lenta.ru website.
Organizers expect only a hundred people to attend a protest outside the court Wednesday. A group that supports Navalny on Facebook — which was instrumental in organizing the anti-Putin protests — has a mere 1,678 members.
Whether Navalny's anti-corruption foundation will be able to continue the work that made him famous is unclear. Since the legal pressure against him intensified, it has lost most of its major donors.
Navalny himself, however, seems resigned about the prospect of prison.
"My situation really isn't the saddest one," he said. "Whether it'll be a conditional or a prison sentence, I don't know. They'll have a look at how the trial's going and they'll decide."
His wife Yulia, with whom he has a son aged five and a daughter aged 11, told independent Dozhd television that she expects it will probably end in conviction.
"I will wait for him, will try to help so that he understands we are all waiting for him," she said.