Russian investigators on Friday accused a prominent opposition leader of fraud and money-laundering, intensifying legal pressure on the anti-Kremlin protest movement as it prepares to hold its next big demonstration this weekend.
Investigators said they suspect Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg of defrauding a transportation company of 55 million rubles ($1.8 million) by overcharging it for postal services. Navalny wrote on Twitter that the accusations were "utter nonsense" and suggested they were aimed at targeting his family in reprisal for his efforts to mobilize opposition to President Vladimir Putin.
A 36-year-old charismatic lawyer, Navalny first made his name exposing corruption in state-controlled companies. He then spearheaded a series of street rallies in Moscow that drew up to 100,000 people before last March's vote that handed Putin a third presidential term.
Navalny's personal assistant, lawyer and brother all told Russian media they had learned of the charges through news reports and were unaware of any summons for questioning.
Brother Oleg Navalny's office was searched on Friday and so were the premises of the firm owned by Navalny's parents.
Navalny was charged in July with stealing 16 million rubles (about $500,000) in assets from a state timber company, threatening him with a 10-year prison sentence. Navalny has called the timber charges "absurd" and "shameless."
The Russian opposition is gearing up for another major demonstration on Saturday, marking roughly a year since the mass anti-Putin protests began. The Moscow city government has refused to authorize the opposition rally, so it is likely to be dispersed by police.
Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, on Friday accused authorities of putting pressure on her son. She told the Ekho Moskvy radio station that the investigators' announcement aimed to "blackmail my son through his family, to keep him away from that march, to make him stop his political activities."
She said the entire family stands by Navalny and his work.
Investigators have accused several other opposition figures of crimes in the buildup to the protest. State-linked media released transcripts and audio recordings Thursday that the federal Investigative Committee said proved protest leaders, including prominent left-wing activist Sergei Udaltsov, had followed the orders of Georgian officials intent on overthrowing the Russian government.