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Alexey Navalny, Russian opposition leader, walks with demonstrators during a rally in Moscow on Feb. 29, 2019.

Alexey Navalny, Russian opposition leader, walks with demonstrators during a rally in Moscow on Feb. 29, 2019. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny faces years more in prison as a new fraud trial started Tuesday that his supporters and human rights defenders say aims to keep President Vladimir Putin’s top critic silent.

Navalny, 45, has been in detention since January last year, when he returned to Russia after recovering abroad from a near-fatal attack involving a nerve-agent that he and Western governments blamed on Putin’s secret services. The Kremlin denies any involvement in the assassination attempt in Siberia.

Held in a strict-regime penal colony about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Moscow, Navalny is going on trial inside the prison. The new charges carry a maximum sentence of 15 years and represent a further blow to Putin’s top opponent, who was due to be released next year.

The proceedings amount to a “sham trial,” said Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Marie Struthers. “It’s obvious that the Russian authorities intend to ensure that Navalny doesn’t leave prison any time soon.”

Navalny is currently serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for violating probation terms of an earlier suspended fraud sentence in a case the European Court of Human Rights has called politically motivated. He’s now charged with embezzling 356 million rubles ($4.7 million) of funds donated to his political organizations. Navalny also faces a separate count of contempt of court during a hearing last year.

Putin, 69, has been in power since 2000, the longest rule since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and has waged a relentless crackdown on opposition in recent years. He’s changed the constitution to allow him to stay on as president until 2036, and is locked in the worst stand-off since the Cold War with the U.S. and its allies, which accuse him of preparing for a possible invasion of Ukraine. Russia has repeatedly denied it has any such plans.

Navalny’s wife, Yulia, who was present at the start of the trial, accused the authorities of “keeping him in prison because he’s not afraid of the government,” in an Instagram post.

“Putin is trying really hard to make people feel totally helpless,” Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter Tuesday. “Look at how we sentence Navalny, in prison uniform, to 15 years, and again and again.”

Russian authorities have accused Navalny of acting as a Western agent, banning his organizations as extremist since his detention, prompting most of his key aides to flee the country fearing arrest.

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