MOSCOW — In an emotional closing argument to a court Friday, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny vowed to keep on opposing President Vladimir Putin's rule, even if prosecutors succeed in convicting and imprisoning him on embezzlement charges that he dismisses as politically motivated.
Navalny, a lawyer and anti-corruption crusader, was a major driving force behind massive protests ahead of Putin's return to presidency in 2012. He has been charged with heading a group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company while he worked as an adviser to the provincial governor in Kirov in 2009.
The 37-year-old, who also faces other investigations, has declared he wants to run for mayor of Moscow and even the presidency. He insists the allegations have been drummed up by Russian authorities who are exacting revenge for his political activism and his exposure of high-level corruption.
Prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov on Friday asked the court to sentence Navalny to six years in prison and fine him 1 million rubles ($30,000), calling his crime "common" and "banal." But Navalny said no matter what the court decision, it would not halt his crusade against government corruption and lawlessness.
"My colleagues and I will do our best to destroy a feudal state that's being built in Russia, destroy the system of government where 83 percent of national wealth is owned by half a percent of the population," he said in a live webcast from the courtroom in Kirov.
"If somebody thinks that upon hearing this threat of six years, I will run away abroad or go into hiding, they could not be more wrong," Navalny said. "I don't have any other choice and I don't want to do anything else. I want to help people of my country, work for my compatriots."
Also on trial is Pyotr Ofitserov, a businessman who ran a timber trading company in Kirov during Navalny's time in the northwestern Russian region. Prosecutors asked the court to sentence Ofitserov to five years in prison and a million ruble fine.
Navalny, however, described Ofitserov as a "hostage" in this case and apologized to him, his wife and five children, saying they fell victim to a "political trial."
Navalny's lawyers argued that prosecutors had failed to provide any evidence that he was involved in embezzlement, or that this embezzlement ever happened. Navalny said the absurdity of the case was supported by Kirov officials' decision not to sue him and Ofitserov for damages in an arbitration court.
Vyacheslav Opalev, a key prosecution witness whose testimony triggered the charges, got a suspended sentence in an expedited trial in December after pleading guilty to conspiring with Navalny to steal timber from state-owned company Kirovles.
Navalny insists Opalev is framing him out of revenge: Navalny had recommended that Opalev, who was the Kirovles director general, be fired and that officials investigate potential corruption in his company, which had incurred 200 million rubles ($6 million) in losses by the time Navalny arrived in the region.
Throughout the trial, testimony of prosecution witnesses clashed with the core arguments of the indictment that claimed Navalny's work in Kirov led to the embezzlement. None of the managers at Kirovles who appeared in court, except for Opalev, were able to confirm that Navalny defrauded the company.
The verdict for Navalny and Ofitserov will be announced on July 18, Judge Sergei Blinov said on Friday.