MOSCOW: Top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny could be facing jail on Tuesday after a sudden twist in his controversial fraud trail, which has angered his supporters.
The date of the verdict, initially scheduled for January 15, was suddenly brought forward on Monday, raising concerns that the charismatic 38-year-old opposition leader could be sent to prison.
The move also raises the possibility of clashes in central Moscow as authorities are tightening the screws against dissenters.
This month prosecutors called for Navalny to be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
His lawyers said the decision to bring forward the ruling seemed unprecedented and aimed at wrong-footing thousands of Navalny’s supporters who had earlier pledged to rally near the Kremlin walls on January 15.
“There is just one question in this situation,” Navalny, who has been under house arrest since February, said wryly on Twitter.
“Why bothering with reading out the verdict at all? They should have taken (me) from home and put up the text of the verdict on the website of the Investigative Committee.”
The demonstration could stir simmering discontent over the collapse of the ruble and growing inflation as oil prices tumble and Western sanctions over Ukraine take their toll.
The move is capping a turbulent year that has seen the Kremlin lock horns with the West and ramp up pressure against the opposition at home amid brewing economic trouble.
More than 30,000 people had pledged to attend the January 15 rally.
Some had said the January rally threatened to become the biggest demonstration against President Vladimir Putin’s rule since the beginning of Moscow’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine.
Navalny’s supporters swiftly regrouped, calling for a new rally on Tuesday.
As of Monday evening, more than 8,500 have said on Facebook they will attend the new protest.
For better coordination, Navalny urged his supporters to install on their phones the FireChat app — widely used by protesters in Hong Kong this year — if authorities move to jam cell phone connections.
The announcement of the verdict can take more than a day.
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 to general astonishment walked away with a suspended sentence.
Along with his brother Oleg, Navalny is now 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).
The French firm has said that it suffered no damages.
Navalny and his supporters have said the case was an attempt to muzzle him.
Many observers expressed concern that Navalny could be imprisoned rather than get a suspended sentence.
“I am afraid that Navalny will get a real prison term,” said Nikolai Petrov of the Higher School of Economics.
Navalny has said he believes Putin will personally decide his fate.
Navalny’s influence increased after he came second in the Moscow mayoral election last year, polling more than 27 percent of the vote.
Thousands of protesters rallied in central Moscow after the politician was sentenced to five years in a penal colony in 2013.
The sudden decision to bring forward the verdict drew parallels with a judge who raced to wrap up the second trial of Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky by the New Year in 2010.
Khodorkovsky was sentenced to a second term in prison over theft and money-laundering on December 30, 2010.
Last December, Putin suddenly pardoned Khodorkovsky after he spent a decade in prison.