MOSCOW: Russia is planning early next week to charge Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and a leader of the opposition, in a probe over losses at a state-owned firm, his lawyer said Friday.
The probe represents one of the most serious legal challenges yet for Navalny, 36, a charismatic lawyer who has twice spent short stints in jail for his role in protests against President Vladimir Putin.
“Alexei has been ordered to appear Monday at the Investigative Committee (in Moscow) to face charges over the so-called KirovLes case," defence lawyer Vadim Kobzev told AFP.
Kobzev said he did not know whether Navalny would be arrested but added he could face between two and five years in prison under the charges of causing damage to assets.
Investigators earlier this month re-opened a two-year-old probe against Navalny after Russia's top investigator Alexander Bastrykin dressed down his subordinates in the Kirov region for closing it earlier this year.
“You had a criminal probe against this person and you closed it on the sly," government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta quoted Bastrykin as saying earlier this month. “There won't be mercy for such things."
According to investigators, forestry firm KirovLes company sustained losses of over 1 million rubles ($30,900) between April and August 2009 due to the actions of Navalny who at the time was an adviser to the Kirov region's governor.
Navalny has denied the charges. A spokeswoman for the Investigative Committee declined to comment on Friday.
Known for his rousing rhetoric and knack for catchphrases, Navalny has emerged as the star of the protest movement against Putin's decade-long rule and one of its biggest hopes as a serious challenge to the Russian strongman.
Over the past months he tirelessly encouraged Russians to fight for their rights and published a number of reports exposing corruption in the government and state companies.
In April, Time magazine named him among the world's 100 most influential people.
On Thursday, Navalny in an apparent counter-attack on Bastrykin, published documents alleging that Bastrykin had until 2009 a long-term residence permit in the Czech Republic as well as undeclared business interests.
In a huge irony, he sent a formal request to the Investigative Committee, which is often called the Russian equivalent of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, to probe its boss. Similar requests have been sent to Putin and the FSB security service.
Bastrykin is a close ally of Putin and has managed to hold on to his job despite a number of high-profile scandals.
Last month, the country's top opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta said Bastrykin had personally taken its deputy editor to a forest and threatened his life. The top investigator initially denied all the claims but then offered a public apology.
Opposition activists and rights campaigners accuse the Kremlin of a ruthless crackdown on the motley opposition movement since Putin's return for a historic third term in May.
In less than three months after Putin started his new term, the Kremlin-controlled parliament has rushed through a string of laws that raise fines for protesters and force internationally-funded non-governmental organisations to carry a “foreign agent" tag.