(FILES) This file photo taken on February 27, 2016 shows Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny taking a selfie picture during a memorial march marking the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov in central Moscow. AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV
Prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday faced a guilty verdict in a trial that could end his bid to challenge President Vladimir Putin in next year’s presidential poll.
Prosecutors in the provincial city of Kirov have called for Navalny, a Kremlin critic and anti-corruption whistleblower, to be given a five-year suspended sentence on embezzlement charges he insists are politically motivated.
That result would not see him sent to jail but could bar him from standing for elected office.
The judge began reading his decision on Wednesday afternoon, which will end with the official verdict and sentencing.
Rulings in Russian courts can take hours and even days but Navalny and his lawyer said it had already become obvious that the judge would find against him.
“It’s clear that it’s a guilty,” Navalny said in the courtroom during a break.
Lawyer Olga Mikhailova told AFP that the judge said that “the court established that Navalny organised embezzlement”.
“The judge will proclaim him ‘guilty’ at the end.”
The Kremlin critic said he had brought a packed bag of clothes and food with him in case he is jailed.
In December, Navalny wrong-footed the Kremlin by announcing his intention to run for president in 2018, while Putin has yet to confirm his expected participation.
The court held a retrial in Navalny’s case after the European Court of Human Rights last year quashed an original 2013 ruling, saying that the politician and his co-defendant, businessman Pyotr Ofitserov, did not have a fair trial.
The original trial ended by slapping Navalny with a five-year suspended sentence over a timber deal, a verdict that the politician and his supporters say was politically motivated.
After the European court decision, Russia’s supreme court ordered that Navalny and Ofitserov face a retrial and prosecutors have asked the judge to again impose the same sentence.
Navalny wrote on Twitter that the wording of the decision the judge is reading out was exactly the same as in 2013, including typos.
A conviction would disqualify him from standing for office, eliminating the most prominent and eloquent representative of the opposition to Putin, lawyers said.
However, in a legal confusion, the Russian constitution allows anyone who is not in prison to stand for election.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists he did not want to comment ahead of the court decision.
“The decisions that will be taken, it’s unlikely that anyone can contest them if it’s not permitted by law,” he said.
Asked if Navalny’s possible exclusion would make the 2018 election look bad to international observers, Peskov said: “As for how it will look, here we don’t consider any fears to be appropriate.”
The 2013 verdict in Kirov forced Navalny to step away from frontline politics and concentrate on digging up compromising information on the lavish lifestyles of top politicians and officials.
Navalny, a 40-year-old lawyer, came to fame with punchy oratory at mass rallies in 2011 and 2012 against Putin’s return to the Kremlin.
He was runner-up in Moscow’s 2013 mayoral race after taking to the streets with a Western-style campaign against a Kremlin-backed incumbent. At the time he was appealing against the Kirov verdict so was not formally convicted.
The end of Navalny’s trial comes as another member of Russia’s marginalised opposition, Vladimir Kara-Murza, is in a coma with organ failure after suffering an “acute poisoning” last week, his wife said.
So far there has been no confirmation of foul play over the incident, which comes two years after an earlier suspected poisoning nearly killed Kara-Murza.