Russia probes top anti-graft campaigner

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Russian investigators on Tuesday launched a formal criminal probe against the country's top anti-graft campaigner and founder of the local equivalent of the WikiLeaks whistle-blower website.

Alexei Navalny's website has won renown in Moscow and in some Western media for using a grassroots campaign to expose shadowy business dealings at all levels of Russia's outsized bureaucracy.

The 34-year-old's targets have included the Transneft oil pipeline operator and the massive state bank VTB -- two institutions with powerful state connections that have waged war against Navalny in court.

Navalny has been investigated for alleged misbehaviour on past occasions but never faced a formal criminal probe by the country's central Investigative Committee.

The committee's case concerns Navalny's work in 2009 as a non-paid adviser to the governor of the central Kirov region.

An official at the agency said Navalny helped organise an illegal local transaction involving timber and that his actions "inflicted property damage by means of deceit or breach of trust."

"He essentially did things you attribute to raiders when they win control of an enterprise," the committee official said.

The committee named two little-known timber companies involved in the transaction but disclosed few other details and did not specify Navalny's exact role in the dispute.

The website said the blogger was being accused of having caused 1.3 million rubles ($165,000) in damages.

Navalny has developed a reputation for using understated humour to skewer state official and instantly reacted to the announcement with characteristic nonchalance.

"Hurray! Finally, the campaign against corruption has borne its first fruit," Navalny wrote on his blog.

Navalny has previously conceded that his actions -- primarily involving well-documented efforts to prove the corrupt dealings of state company executives and ministers -- have made him a prime target of retribution.

But he told the Interfax news agency that he was not particularly concerned about the present probe.

"I am not worried because I know that all these charges are false -- that they are fabrications," Navalny said.

Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh also said he was puzzled by the case. Navalny was helping restructure the local timber industry and its loss-making companies in 2009, he said.

The campaign resulted in the ouster of one local timber company boss and the launch of criminal proceedings against him.

"But for some reason, the prosecutors did not want to get involved and instead there came these absurd accusations against Navalny," Belykh wrote in his own blog.

© 2011 AFP

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