By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was charged with theft on Tuesday and could face up to 10 years in jail in what Kremlin critics say is a growing crackdown on dissent by President Vladimir Putin.
Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who organized street protests that have dented Putin's authority, dismissed the charge as absurd and other opposition leaders accused Putin of using KGB-style tactics to try to silence his critics.
The most charismatic of the protest leaders and potentially the biggest threat to Putin, he was also barred from leaving the country in the latest of a series of moves against Putin's opponents since he began his six-year term as president in May.
Russia's federal Investigative Committee said Navalny, 36, had been accused of helping organize a plan to steal timber from a state firm called KirovLes, causing the government of the Kirov region to lose more than 16 million roubles ($497,000). The charges relate to 2009, when Navalny was advising the region's governor.
"This is really quite absurd and very strange," Navalny said as he left the Investigative Committee headquarters, where he was summoned to hear what he had expected to be a less severe charge over a case that was opened in 2010 but had been dormant.
"I will continue to do what I have been doing, and in this sense nothing changes for me," he said. "We believe that what is happening now is illegal. We will use the methods of legal defense at our disposal. What else can we do?"
The charges, in a country where few believe in the independence of the judiciary, signaled a toughening of the Kremlin's stance against its opponents.
"I understand that they are putting people who are troublesome for them behind bars. On one hand I'm glad I am enough of a problem that they fear me, but it brings me no happiness to understand that they will lock me up sooner or later," Navalny told Dozhd online broadcaster in an interview.
He said he believed some decisions in politically motivated cases were being made by "Putin himself".
Putin, an ex-KGB spy, has in the last few weeks pushed through a law raising fines for protesters, tightened controls of the Internet - often used to organize protests - and imposed tougher rules on foreign-funded campaign and lobby groups.
Some protest organizers' homes have been raided, and some demonstrators arrested over a rally that turned violent on May 6. However, the protest leaders have not so far faced long jail sentences which could backfire against the Kremlin by rallying support for the opposition.
"We should be concerned with attempts in Russia to silence fierce opposition activist Alexei Navalny," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter.
Navalny, a lawyer, is one of the few people regarded as capable of becoming a viable leader of the fractious opposition, although critics say he has nationalist tendencies.
He gained prominence by fighting corruption at state-controlled companies and used the Internet to do so, appealing to a tech-savvy generation of urban Russians.
Before a parliamentary election last December he helped to energize a struggling opposition, popularizing a phrase referring to the ruling United Russia party, then headed by Putin, as the "party of swindlers and thieves".
He was also among the leaders of protests prompted by fraud allegations in the election on behalf of United Russia.
"This case has been fabricated from beginning to end," said Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Putin opponent. "The true reason for what is happening is Putin's mortal fear of losing power ... He is wildly afraid of the opposition, including Navalny."
In a reference to the Cheka secret police, a precursor of the Soviet KGB, Nemtsov said: "Putin is using traditional Chekist methods ... Fabricated cases, charges, arrests, jail."
Billionaire businessman Alexander Lebedev, a shareholder in Aeroflot who nominated Navalny to the board of the state-controlled Russian airline, described the case as "completely ridiculous" and likened it to tactics used against Soviet dissidents during the Cold War era. Continued...