MOSCOW — Russian authorities charged Alexei Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics, with theft on Tuesday, threatening him with a 10-year prison sentence as the Kremlin ramps up a crackdown on dissent. Navalny rejected the charges as baseless.
The 36-year-old anti-corruption crusader and popular blogger has played a key role in rallying Russia's young Internet generation against Putin's rule. Over the winter, the lawyer spearheaded a series of rallies in Moscow that drew up to 100,000 people to the streets ahead of the March vote that handed Putin a third presidential term.
Putin on Tuesday appeared to try to slightly mollify the opposition without actually giving ground, saying that his notorious likening of protesters' white ribbons to condoms wasn't meant as an insult to demonstrators.
But authorities showed Tuesday they are determined to crack down on any protests outside formally approved demonstrations, arresting 25 people at a rally in central Moscow.
The State Investigative Committee said Tuesday that it suspects Navalny of organizing a scheme to steal assets from a state timber company totaling 16 million rubles (about half a million dollars). He was ordered not to leave Moscow as the committee pursues an investigation against him.
In Russia, authorities file initial charges to open a criminal probe, long before reaching the trial stage. In any case, Navalny insisted to reporters that "the charges are absolutely absurd."
Since Putin's re-election, the government has struck back at the opposition, arresting some activists and using legislation to try to curb its activities.
Parliament, controlled by Putin loyalists, passed a bill that raised fines 150-fold for people taking part in unsanctioned protests. It was not immediately clear whether those arrested in the Tuesday unauthorized demonstration would be hit with the full force of that law which carries a maximum fine of 300,000 rubles ($9,300).
Another law passed this month requires non-governmental groups receiving funding from abroad and engaging in political activity to register as foreign agents.
In one example of the tougher line on dissent, three Russian feminist rockers have gone on trial for performing a "punk prayer" against Putin in Moscow's main cathedral. They face up to seven years in prison, and human rights groups have condemned the trial, calling the women prisoners of conscience.
The probe against Navalny focuses on events dating to 2009 when he served as an adviser to a provincial governor in the Kirov region. Investigators allege that he colluded with the head of a state timber company and a trader to rob it. A previous probe into similar allegations was closed earlier this year for lack of evidence.
Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin recently chided a local investigator for closing that case. Under the renewed probe, investigators reworded the charges, which carry a heavier punishment compared to those dropped.
"There is no motive, there is no self-interest, the amount of damage is taken out of the blue," Navalny said on his blog about the new charges. "The Investigative Committee has no shame."
Navalny, who has more than 270,000 followers on Twitter and owes much of his popularity to his investigations of rampant official corruption, has in recent days targeted Bastrykin, claiming that the chief investigator has covertly obtained a Czech residency permit and bought an apartment in the capital, Prague.
Bastrykin defended himself in an interview with Russian daily Izvestia, admitting that he bought the apartment but denying having the residency permit.
Putin has faced unprecedentedly bold opposition since a fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December set off a series of mass protests.
As the demonstrations began roiling, Putin derided the protesters, saying he initially thought that the white ribbons they wore as symbols were condoms. The remark irritated opposition and subsequent demonstrations saw protesters inflating condoms like balloons in a sarcastic retort.
But speaking Tuesday to an annual youth gathering at Seliger Lake, Putin qualified that comment.
"I wasn't speaking against the people who came out with these symbols; I was annoyed about those people who use techniques developed somewhere over the hill," Putin said, using a colloquialism for something foreign.
He did not specify how the ribbon-wearing may have been foreign-inspired, but the comment was in line with his previous claim that the protesters are stooges of foreign powers and that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instigated demonstrators.
But Putin said Tuesday that he believes "very many patriotic people" were among the demonstrators.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.