By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A prominent Russian opposition leader will stand trial for theft this month, a court said on Wednesday, in what appeared to be a tough signal to critics of President Vladimir Putin who hope to revive a street protest movement in May.
Alexei Navalny, an anti-graft blogger and leader of protests last year whose case has been compared to the prosecution of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky during Putin's first stint in the presidency in 2000-2008, is to go on trial on April 17.
He faces up to ten years in prison if found guilty of stealing 16 million roubles ($512,000) worth of timber from a state firm in Russia's remote Kirov region when he worked there as an adviser to the company, Kirovles, in 2009.
Navalny has denied wrongdoing in the timber case as well as separate cases in which he is accused of defrauding a mail transport company and stealing funds from a political party.
The 36-year-old activist says the allegations are "absurd" and part of a Kremlin strategy to intimidate critics and stifle anti-government protests that started last year.
"I have no doubt I will be found guilty, or a case so obviously trumped-up would not have made it to court," he wrote last week on his blog. "If the verdict was ... not dictated by telephone from the presidential administration, we would be living in a different country."
The setting of the trial date prompted an outcry from activists, who said it was grounds to attend a rally planned on May 6, anniversary of a protest held on the eve of Putin's inauguration to a new six-year term last year.
In a Facebook page dedicated to the protest, some promised to travel across the country to support Navalny at the trial in Kirov, 900 km (560 miles) northeast of Moscow.
Navalny's lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, accused the court of violating the law by refusing to hold any pre-trial hearings. He compared the case to that against Khodorkovsky, whose jailing is seen by foes of Putin as a politically motivated act of revenge.
Since Putin returned to the Kremlin, investigators have searched the homes of opposition leaders and brought cases against dozens of activists, accusing them of committing violent acts at the protest on May 6, 2012.
His United Russia party has passed laws that increase fines for protesters who step out of line, tighten controls on foreign-funded lobby groups and toughen rules on Internet communications by making slander a criminal offence.
Opposition leaders say the laws are part of a campaign to stifle dissent and discredit leaders of a protest movement that at its peak saw 100,000 in the streets of Moscow last year.
"It's like the Soviet-era cases against dissidents. The authorities' main task is not so much to persecute but to defile and compromise the opposition," said politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, a protest leader. "That is why a conviction is needed."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)