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Russia opens trial of radical Putin foe Udaltsov

  • Opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov gestures during a court hearing in Moscow February 18, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

MOSCOW: A Moscow court on Tuesday opened the trial of radical opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov on charges of using the funding of a Georgian politician to try to destabilize President Vladimir Putin's rule.

The high-profile case stems from bloody protests involving tens of thousands of demonstrators that broke out in Moscow on the eve of Putin's swearing-in for a third Kremlin term in May 2012.

The unrest led to hundreds of arrests and a crackdown on leaders of the youth-driven anti-Putin movement that emerged in response to tainted December 2011 parliamentary elections won narrowly by the ruling party.

Udaltsov and his co-defendant Leonid Razvozzhayev both face up to 10 years in a high security penal colony on charges of fomenting mass unrest and "destabilising the sociopolitical situation in the Russian Federation".

"I expect nothing good from this case," Udaltsov's attorney Violetta Volkova told reporters outside Moscow City Court.

"Sergei is an absolutely peaceful politician," said the lawyer. "The current political regime is thus tightening the screws on its political opponents."

Both men pleaded not guilty during Tuesday's hearing.

Udaltsov enjoys only a narrow following in the protest movement and espouses strongly nationalist views -- including admiration for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin -- that play poorly in big cities such as Moscow where most of the opposition's support is based.

But Putin's critics believe his case reflects the Kremlin's broader use of the courts and predominantly government-owned media to quash dissenting views before they gain publicity or support.

The charges against Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev were filed in 2012 after NTV television -- owned by state energy giant Gazprom -- aired a propaganda film that billed itself as an expose of the crimes committed against Russia by leaders of that winter's protests.

One of the grainy clips allegedly showed Udaltsov meeting with a Georgian lawmaker turned tycoon named Givi Targamadze and discussing ways to subvert the Russian leadership.

Targamadze is an ally of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili -- a sworn foe of Putin who waged a brief 2008 war with Russia and is despised by Moscow's political establishment for seeking closer ties with the West.

State prosecutors accuse the two co-defendants of plotting attacks against Russian railroads and public buildings with Targamadze's financial help.

Russia has issued an arrest warrant for Targamadze but Georgia has so far refused his extradition.

Udaltsov -- under house arrest since February 2013 -- has never denied having met or received money from Targamadze while dismissing the charges against him as a "fabrication".

"It is quite possible that the verdict and the sentence were both decided a long time ago," the 37-year-old told the Moscow opposition's Novaya Gazeta newspaper ahead of Tuesday's hearing.

"But our main purpose is to deliver the simple message to those who trust us and sympathise with us -- as well as to society as whole -- that we were framed."

Razvozzhayev fled Ukraine shortly after being charged by Russian officials and then vanished under murky circumstances on the same day that he had filed an asylum application with the Kiev office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

He later re-emerged in Moscow claiming that he had been kidnapped by Russian security service agents in a joint operation with their Ukrainian counterparts.

Russian officials have denied abducting Razvozzhayev and Ukraine's security service has claimed having no knowledge about the case.

 
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Summary

A Moscow court on Tuesday opened the trial of radical opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov on charges of using the funding of a Georgian politician to try to destabilize President Vladimir Putin's rule.

The charges against Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev were filed in 2012 after NTV television -- owned by state energy giant Gazprom -- aired a propaganda film that billed itself as an expose of the crimes committed against Russia by leaders of that winter's protests.

One of the grainy clips allegedly showed Udaltsov meeting with a Georgian lawmaker turned tycoon named Givi Targamadze and discussing ways to subvert the Russian leadership.

Targamadze is an ally of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili -- a sworn foe of Putin who waged a brief 2008 war with Russia and is despised by Moscow's political establishment for seeking closer ties with the West.


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