Russian father-of-five becomes unlikely hero in Navalny case

Pyotr Ofitserov, a smiley round-faced businessman and father-of-five, kicked a ball in the living room of his Moscow apartment playing with his seven-year-old son.

He was enjoying what could be a brief period of freedom after being convicted on July 18 alongside Russia's most prominent protest leader, Alexei Navalny, and then dramatically released the following day.

Both men were freed pending appeals of their prison sentences.

"Freedom is already a lot to lose, you know. When I spent those 22 hours in prison (between conviction and release), they were very long," said Ofitserov, 38, who is facing four years behind bars.

The case prompted outrage from the United States and the European Union, with critics saying Navalny was convicted in a blatantly political trial to bring an end to his growing popularity, frank criticisms of President Vladimir Putin and open presidential ambitions.

Ofitserov played a supporting role as the head of a small timber company in the struggling northern Kirov region in 2009 when Navalny was acting as an unpaid advisor to the governor. The two men were convicted of conspiring to defraud the local government of 16 million rubles ($500,000).

Navalny, a supremely confident lawyer with piercing blue eyes and an endless supply of crisp shirts, ran circles round the judge, while Ofitserov, a writer of business manuals, joked with his lawyer and wore a baggy T-shirt for the verdict.

Less than a day after tearfully hugging their wives goodbye, the men received a temporary release by a court and returned in triumph to Moscow, where Navalny is standing for mayor.

Sitting on the sofa in his family's apartment in southern Moscow with his wife Lydia and children, aged 2 to 21, Ofitserov however said he feared he had a "99 percent chance" of returning to prison.

"I am preparing for having to go back," he said, citing some practicalities such as packing a sturdier bag and a thermos mug that does not burn his lips like a prison-issue aluminium cup.

"I've got a bit of experience" with prison life, he added.

Ofitserov thinks it would be risky for the authorities to put Navalny in jail again after allowing him to campaign for Moscow mayor and gain popularity as a candidate, warning that it could lead to street uprisings.

He also believes that their case went to trial entirely to punish Navalny, since an investigation had earlier been closed.

"They used my company to get to Navalny," he said. "If Navalny hadn't existed, I would not have been in court for the case, because this case is absolutely political."

In court, Navalny said Ofitserov was there "by chance," when dozens of others could have been in his place.

Ofitserov said that investigators had urged him to testify against Navalny early in the probe.

"The investigator said, laughing: 'Pyotr, give us the right evidence and everything will go well for you, your work will be fine and you'll have no problem and you won't have to go to prison,' but I said no."

"Then they proposed it again, barely laughing this time, when I was alone without my lawyer. But I refused again."

In powerful last words in court, Ofitserov said that "deals with your conscience are never worth it."

His words were praised by jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who said in a statement on the verdict: "Today, to become a hero, you just have to be honest, not a traitor."

"These were perhaps the strongest and most important words spoken in two-and-a-half months" of the trial, wrote columnist Maria Eismont in Vedomosti daily.

Ofitserov said he had not expected to be freed on appeal, thinking this would only apply to Navalny as a mayoral candidate.

"I even argued with the guard on the way (to court). He said 'So, you're getting the train home tonight', and I said: 'Don't put someone in my bunk, I'll be back'."

Ofitserov said that he would support Navalny for Moscow mayor and take part in his campaign, although he revealed some ambivalence about the politician whom he first met when both were activists in the Yabloko liberal party.

He said he was not a "real worshipper" of Navalny, but that he is the only "effective lever for people who want to change something" as a serious opponent to current mayor and Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin.

As a result of the trial the two men have become close, Ofitserov said. They had previously stayed in touch only with occasional phone calls and meetings for coffee.

"Thanks to the Investigative Committee and the Russian court system, we have gone through so much together that now -- like it or not -- we have become friends."