Russian governor backs former advisor Navalny in court
The governor of the region where Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is on trial for embezzlement firmly backed the Kremlin critic's defence on Wednesday as he took the witness stand for the first time.
The appearance of Kirov region governor Nikita Belykh -- who had employed Navalny as an unpaid advisor -- had been hotly anticipated as a key moment in a trial denounced by the opposition as a political set-up to destroy a dangerous Kremlin foe.
Navalny, a charismatic speaker at mass rallies against President Vladimir Putin and whistle-blower on state corruption, faces up to a decade in prison if he is convicted of causing a 16 million ruble ($0.5 million) loss to the regional budget in a timber deal.
Belykh denied that the opposition leader's activities could have been harmful to the Kirov region.
"I have no basis to draw such conclusions," Belykh said during cross examination by Navalny's lawyer Olga Mikhailova, cited by the RAPSI legal news agency.
Belykh is a liberal politician who in a highly unusual move was appointed by then president Dmitry Medvedv to head the region in 2008. Navalny worked as his unpaid advisor in 2009.
In a dramatic session, Navalny, himself a lawyer, questioned Belykh for close to an hour on what exactly his job description was.
Belykh said he gave Navalny verbal permission to work on a strategy to improve sales from the debt-ridden forestry company Kirovles, alleged to have entered into an unprofitable sales deal in a plot involving Navalny.
Belykh said Kirovles was in an "extremely pitiful" state.
Navalny was not a state employee but an advisor working on a voluntary basis, he stressed.
Casting doubt on the prosecution's argument, Belykh said that Navalny had tense relations with the head of Kirovles, Vyacheslav Opalev, who has testified that Navalny acted as his accomplice in the complex case.
"You could not call the relationship between Navalny and Opalev close and warm," he said, cited by the Interfax news agency.
Opalev had already been convicted of embezzlement late last year but received a suspended sentence because he plea-bargained with prosecutors. He also implicated Navalny in the case.
Belykh said that he had a closer relationship with Navalny than with other advisors in 2009 because Navalny was the only one who lived in the region and went on trips with him.
Belykh's testimony came after one of his deputies, Sergei Shcherchkov, said in court last week that Navalny was too lowly in status to have controlled the activities of Kirovles.
© 2013 AFP