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Originally published Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 12:29 AM

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Key witness in Navalny case goes back on own words

A key prosecution witness whose testimony triggered charges of embezzlement against a Russian opposition leader contradicted himself in court on Thursday, but then insisted that any inconsistencies were due to stress.

Associated Press

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KIROV, Russia —

A key prosecution witness whose testimony triggered charges of embezzlement against a Russian opposition leader contradicted himself in court on Thursday, but then insisted that any inconsistencies were due to stress.

Alexei Navalny, who led protests against President Vladimir Putin and exposed alleged corruption in government, said that the contradiction goes to show that the prosecutors had framed him.

The witness, Vyacheslav Opalev, was given a four-year suspended sentence in December after pleading guilty to conspiring with Navalny to steal timber from a state-owned company.

On Thursday, Opalev told the court he was forced into a deal by Navalny to buy timber at artificially low prices, rather than colluding with him, as he had declared in his written statement submitted last year.

Navalny is accused of heading a criminal group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from that state-owned company while working as an adviser to the Kirov provincial governor in 2009. The charges could send him to prison for 10 years and would ban him from running for public office. Navalny insists the charges are revenge for his exposure of high-level corruption and a campaign against Putin and his party.

The case stems from Navalny's role as an adviser to the governor of the region that includes the city of Kirov. Charges were first brought in May 2011, alleging that Navalny had forced Opalev, director of the state-owned timber company Kirovles, to sign a disadvantageous contract that deprived the company of 1.3 million rubles ($40,000).

Investigators dismissed those charges in April 2012, and then reopened them less than two months later. The new indictment says that Navalny conspired with Opalev to launder the proceeds from the sale of timber through a holding company headed by co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov.

On Thursday, Opalev did not mention his role in the conspiracy, saying that he "has been under a lot of stress" in the past two years, "has forgotten a lot of things and would like to forget everything as soon as possible."

The prosecutors then asked the judge - and he approved their request - to read out Opalev's written statement he submitted last year, in order, they said, to clear out "inconsistencies" in his Thursday testimony.

Opalev's guilty plea last year was crucial for filing charges against Navalny. Opalev's written statement listed in detail his dealings with Navalny. This stood in stark contrast to his inability to remember any of the details when facing the court on Thursday. He insisted, however, that he stood by his written statement.

Navalny told the court that Opalev's written statement "was written at the investigators' request in order to falsify the case."

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Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.

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