Navalny Denounces 'Putin's Band' As Retrial Draws To Close

KIROV, Russia -- Prosecutors have asked a Russian judge to convict Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny and hand him a suspended five-year sentence in a retrial he says is aimed at barring him from running for president in 2018.

The state prosecutor made the request on February 3 as the politically charged trial of Navalny, an anticorruption crusader and fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, drew to a close at a court in the provincial city of Kirov.

The judge said he would issue the verdict on February 8.

In a defiant final statement, Navalny accused "Putin's band" of stealing Russia's wealth from its people and vowed to continue his political activities regardless of the trial's outcome.

He promised the judge and court staff that he would serve them and all other Russian citizens if elected president.

When the judge ordered him to speak only about issues related to his case, Navalny said that everything he says is related to the case because the case is "politically motivated."

"Unfortunately, in modern Russia a courtroom is the only platform where honest people, including me, are able to openly and freely express their political views," Navalny said.

Ban On Holding Office

A key leader of large antigovernment protests in 2011-2012, Navalny also leads an organization that has published several reports alleging corruption among allies of Putin. He was convicted in 2013 of large-scale theft in a trial he said was Kremlin-orchestrated retribution for his opposition activity.

The Supreme Court threw out the verdict last year and ordered a retrial -- a move he and his supporters say removed a prohibition on running for office. Navalny announced in December that he would run for president in a March 2018 election, in which Putin, in power as president or prime minister since 1999, is widely expected to seek a new six-year Kremlin term

A five-year suspended sentence, the same as the one he was handed at the initial trial, would reinstate the prohibition on holding office but would keep him out of prison -- an outcome opposition activists say the Kremlin favors because he could become a political martyr behind bars.

At the February 3 session of the Lenin District court in Kirov, some 800 kilometers northeast of Moscow, Navalny asked for an acquittal, saying he is not guilty, and promised the judge, the court secretary, and a bailiff in the courtroom that he would "improve their lives" if elected president.

Travel Restriction Dropped

Acquittals are rare in Russian courts, which government opponents and rights activists say do the bidding of the Kremlin and local authorities, and Navalny has predicted he will be convicted.

The prosecutor asked the court to hand Navalny's co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov a four-year suspended sentence and fine them 500,000 rubles ($8,350) each.

Navalny was convicted of fraud in a separate case in 2014 and given a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence.

At he end of the court session on February 3, Judge Aleksei Vtyurin adjourned the trial and said he would pronounce the verdict on February 8.

The judge said that both Navalny and Ofitserov are free to leave Kirov until then, dropping a previous order in which he had said they must stay in the city until the verdict and sentence are announced.

Navalny had refused to sign a pledge to abide by the order, saying he would not abandon plans to attend the opening of a campaign office in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown, on February 4.