KIROV, Russia (AP) — A prominent Russian opposition leader on trial for embezzlement told the court on Wednesday that he would prove his innocence to the public, if not to the judge whom he considers biased.
Alexei Navalny, who led protests against President Vladimir Putin and exposed alleged corruption in government, is accused of heading an organized criminal group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company while working as an adviser to the Kirov provincial governor in 2009.
The charges, which strike at the essence of Navalny's image as an anti-corruption activist, threaten to send him to prison for 10 years and would ban him from running for public office. Navalny has declared his intent to run for president.
Navalny insists the charges are revenge for his exposure of high-level corruption and are intended to silence him.
"The goal of this trial is political persecution and halt of the investigations we're conducting," he told the court after pleading not guilty to the charges. "I'm confident that my innocence will be proven in this trial, and that my innocence will be obvious to everyone no matter what verdict will be."
Before the hearings started on Wednesday, a Navalny supporter put up a large white sign in front of the courthouse saying "Putin is a Thief" in capital letters.
Also on trial is Pyotr Ofitserov,, who ran a timber trading company in Kirov during Navalny's time in the region.
The trial began a week ago, but was quickly adjourned until Wednesday at the request of the defense, which said Navalny and his legal team had not been given enough time to read the case files.
Judge Sergei Blinov on Wednesday dismissed a claim by Navalny's lawyer who insisted that the case be sent back to prosecutors, citing a lack of specifics and inconsistencies. Blinov dismissed as "immaterial" a claim that the indictment against Navalny and his alleged accomplice lists conflicting figures of the amount of damage caused.
Navalny and Ofitserov's lawyers also argued for the removal of Blinov, saying that in just two days of the trial he had already compromised his position. The judge "had sided with the prosecutors and in fact acted as a 'defense attorney' for the prosecutors who had failed to conduct a proper investigation and shape up the indictment," Olga Mikhailova told the court.
That motion was also dismissed.
The defense lawyers argued that the case has no merits because Ofitserov has invoices proving the legality of the transaction — but they were not mentioned in the indictment.
Pavel Smertin, a witness of the defense who represents Kirovles, the state-owned company which is the injured party at the trial, said that the company sides with the indictment but would not make statements regarding the amount of damage that was caused. He gave no explanation for his reticence on the damage issue.
In reference to previous confused statements of the investigators Navalny asked Smertin whether he thinks that timber from Kirovles was stolen or sold at an artificially low price. Smertin said he "has no opinion about that matter."
Navalny told the court that there are currently four other criminal cases against him pending, but this will not break him down. "If you think I will get scared and keep silent, you're mistaken," he said.
In a report released Wednesday, Amnesty International described a crackdown on human rights in the first year of President Vladimir Putin's third presidential term as a "witch hunt."
Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said the prosecution of Navalny is part of that trend.
"We cannot approach the Navalny trial as a regular economic trial — the political context here is obvious," Lokshina said.
The hearings got adjourned until 9 a.m. on Thursday.
Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.