Russian protest leader denounces 'political' trial

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday denounced his trial as a fabrication aimed at ending his political career, warning the judge that officials involved in persecuting him will eventually face "harsh punishment".

A Russian court on Wednesday reopened the trial against Navalny, who may face up to a decade in jail if convicted on charges of embezzling half a million dollars in a timber deal, a case he says was orchestrated by President Vladimir Putin.

"The most important reason for this case's existence... is pushing me out of the legal political field," Navalny said in an emotional first defence statement to the court.

"This case is absolutely politically motivated and fabricated," Navalny told the court in the city of Kirov about 900 kilometres (560 miles) from Moscow.

"I am sure that all persons who are involved in illegal political persecution of me, or of people like me who are fighting the corrupt, occupational regime currently in power in Russia... will sooner or later face a harsh, but just, punishment," the towering Navalny told judge Sergei Blinov.

The prosecution accuses the 36-year-old, who has emerged as the most charismatic figure in the anti-Putin protest movement, of causing a loss of $500,000 (385,000 euros) to a regional Kirov government while acting as an advisor in a timber deal.

But Navalny rubbished the charges as made-up and based on testimony of only one witness, asking where the supposedly embezzled money went.

"What happened to the 16 million rubles (around $500,000)? If I took them, where did they go?" he asked loudly in a courtroom filled with dozens of journalists from Moscow.

Blinov, who rejected the defence's appeals to send the case back to the prosecution, asked Navalny to keep to the substance of the case unless he can prove its political elements.

"The claims by the defence that this court is limiting their rights are unfounded," he earlier announced after Navalny's lawyer expressed doubt in his independence and objectivity and asked that he recuse himself from the case.

"You want me to discuss timber... to pretend I am not in a political process?" Navalny asked the judge, who sighed into his microphone.

"Okay, let's play this fun game... of course we will play it. But if anyone is hoping I will be silent here... that will not happen," he said. "I will say whatever I need to say."

The trial opened last week but was quickly adjourned after Navalny's defence said they needed more time to study the case. After a full day with several recesses, the judge adjourned the process until Thursday at 0500 GMT.

It is the latest trial in post-Soviet Russia to be denounced by the opposition as a political act of revenge by Putin, following the jailings of anti-Kremlin tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the radical punk group Pussy Riot.

During Wednesday's hearing, Navalny's defence cited a litany of violations committed by the investigators, and argued that the final indictment contains conflicting information.

A total of five probes are now aimed at the opposition leader, who if he is even given a suspended sentence will be banned from ever standing for office. He has predicted this trial alone could take months, with some 40 witnesses called to give testimony.

In an editorial published in the daily Vedomosti newspaper on Wednesday, Khodorkovsky, who is serving his second jail term in a prison colony in northern Karelia region, voiced support for Navalny.

"Political motivation is clear" in Navalny's case, he wrote. "In an honest and fair court, these charges would turn out to be baseless."

The spokesman of the powerful Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, bluntly acknowledged earlier this month that Navalny was specially targeted for investigation because of his repeated "teasing" of the Kremlin.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov meanwhile lamented to state television on Monday that "we have no (opposition) leaders who are ready to take responsibility".