KIROV, Russia (AP) — The embezzlement trial of a Russian opposition leader was adjourned for a week shortly after it started Wednesday in a northwestern city besieged by hundreds of activists and journalists. In the evening, hundreds more rallied in Moscow to show their support.
Lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who spearheaded anti-government protests in 2011, and his former colleague are accused of leading an organized criminal group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company in the city of Kirov.
The charges not only threaten to send the 36-year-old Navalny to prison, but strike at the essence of his image as an anti-corruption activist. Navalny says the charges are an act of revenge for his exposure of high-level corruption.
As the trial began, several dozen activists protested in support of Navalny outside the courthouse in Kirov, chanting, "We will not let you go!"
At the Moscow rally, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, an 85-year-old human rights activist and former Soviet dissident, was among those who spoke out in Navalny's defense.
"Everyone present here is well aware that he is not guilty of what he is accused of and everyone present here knows that in spite of this he will be found guilty," Alexeyeva told the crowd. "This is our justice system."
Navalny's lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, asked the court in her opening remarks to adjourn the trial for a month, because her client wasn't given enough time to read the case files. Mikhailova also contested the court's refusal to submit financial documents that could prove that what the prosecutors describe as embezzlement was a regular business deal.
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 insists the charges are 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.
Navalny says the prosecution evidence of embezzlement is actually evidence in his defense. He insists that he has documents to prove that the transaction of selling timber went through and no money was stolen. Courts have not listed a victim in the embezzlement and rejected his appeals to conduct expert analyses of the fraud. Navalny has commissioned three independent reviews himself, all of which conclude no crime was committed, and posted all the case documents online for download in an attempt to clear his name.
"I'm not even going to say any banal stock phrases about how the case has been fabricated and falsified and I'm completely innocent, because I posted all the documents online and anyone can see that for themselves, even if they don't have any legal education," Navalny said after the judge, Sergei Blinov, adjourned the trial for a week until April 24.
Konstantin Zaitsev, the chief judge at the Kirov City Court, said Blinov, 35, has acquitted no defendant in his career as a magistrate. That is in line with the Russian justice system's conviction rate of more than 99 percent.
Hundreds of activists and journalists descended upon Kirov, a muddy post-industrial city of derelict roads and Soviet-era tower blocks, booking up all train tickets and hotels and scrumming outside the court from the middle of the night in an attempt to get inside.
Russia's former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, who served under Putin between 2000 and 2011, voiced his support for Navalny on Tuesday, saying that the criminal case against the lawyer "casts doubts on the basics of the market economy in Russia."