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Russia brings forward Navalny verdict amid threat of protests

Russia has suddenly brought forward the date of top anti-Kremlin figure Alexei Navalny’s verdict in his fraud trial to Tuesday after thousands of his supporters pledged to take to the streets next month, his lawyers said.

“The announcement of the verdict will take place tomorrow, on December 30 at 9 am,” Navalny wrote in his blog.

The verdict by a Moscow court had previously been expected on January 15.

His lawyers said the decision appeared unprecedented.

“I am not aware of a single case when the announcement of a verdict was brought forward,” Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mikhailova told AFP.

Navalny and his team said the move was apparently aimed at catching off guard thousands of the charismatic protest leader’s supporters, who had pledged to turn up on Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin walls on January 15.

“There are no exceptions that cannot be arranged for good people,” Navalny said wryly in his blog.

The announcement of the verdict can take more than a day.

Authorities had warned that the Kremlin crackdown on Navalny could backfire amid mounting economic woes.

Some had said the January rally threatened to become the biggest demonstration against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule since the beginning of Moscow’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine late last year.

Navalny, who shot to prominence during anti-Kremlin protests in 2011-12 which have since fizzled out under a crackdown, already faced a five-year term over embezzlement last year but walked away with a suspended sentence to general astonishment.

The decision to bring forth the verdict date is reminiscent of the end of 2010 when a judge raced against time to wrap up a second trial of top Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky by the New Year.

On December 30, 2010, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to a second term in prison over theft and money-laundering. Last December, Putin suddenly pardoned Khodorkovsky after a decade in prison.

Along with his brother Oleg, Navalny is accused of defrauding French cosmetics company Yves Rocher of nearly 27 million rubles (more than half a million dollars at the exchange rate at the time).

Last week prosecutors called for Navalny to be sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The French firm has said that it suffered no damages by working with the Navalny brothers.