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Dec 19, 12:27 PM EST

Russia seeks 10 years in prison for Putin foe


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MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian prosecutors on Friday asked a court to sentence President Vladimir Putin's chief foe to 10 years in prison, but the defiant opposition leader vowed to keep up his fight against the Kremlin regime.

Alexei Navalny, 38, rose to prominence with his investigations of official corruption and played a leading role in organizing massive anti-Putin street protests in 2011 and 2012. But within a month of the government's May 2012 crackdown on the opposition, investigators slapped Navalny with several criminal cases.

In a trial last summer, Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to prison, but he was released the next day after thousands of people protested in the streets of Moscow. He was given a suspended sentence instead.

In their closing arguments in a separate trial in a Moscow courthouse, prosecutors asked a judge on Friday to convict Navalny and imprison him for nine years, with an additional year added because of the prior conviction.

Navalny and his brother Oleg are being prosecuted for allegedly defrauding a French cosmetics company.

The company, Yves Rocher, wrote a complaint to investigators, but its representatives have insisted throughout the trial that there never were any damages. The French executive who wrote the complaint also left Russia shortly afterward and never attended the hearings.

The prosecutors, who demanded eight years in prison for Oleg Navalny, insisted that the brothers forced the company "into disadvantageous contracts" and defrauded them of 26 million rubles (currently worth about $440,000).

Alexei Navalny's attorney, Olga Mikhailova, argued that "no evidence has been presented in court, in either of the episodes, that the crime even took place."

Oleg Navalny said the indictment contains conflicting statements, including the dates of the alleged fraud and laundry of its proceeds. He also said the prosecutors never said where money that allegedly had been stolen could have gone.

Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and popular blogger, came in a strong second in Moscow's mayoral election in September 2013, nearly clinching a runoff with a Kremlin heavyweight.

In Friday's court hearing, he rejected the charges against him as a payback for his investigations of official corruption, and he dismissed them as "nonsense from the first to the last word."

The opposition leader said, "I'm standing here and I'm ready to stand up here as long as necessary in order to prove to you that I won't tolerate these lies."

Navalny, who has opposed Putin's policy in Ukraine, slammed the Kremlin for using state television to feed Russians with lies about their nation's role in the Ukrainian conflict and corruption in high ranks.

"We have allowed them (the government) to turn us into cattle. What did they give us?" he said.

Looking at the judge and prosecutors, who he has claimed have shown no enthusiasm during the trial, Navalny said: "What did they pay to you who look down at your desks? Nothing. I'm never going to accept the system that was built in the country because it is aimed to rob everyone who is in this courtroom today."

The request for such a lengthy prison sentence this time - unusual for financial crimes in Russia - sends a signal that the government may no longer have any qualms about putting Alexei Navalny behind bars, as Putin's approval ratings have soared to more than 80 percent, bolstered by the annexation of Crimea.

Navalny urged his supporters to rise up against the government. "I believe people have a legitimate right for an uprising against this unfair, corrupted government, this junta that has stolen everything," he said.

Talking to a smattering of protests outside the courthouse in central Moscow, Navalny said he felt guilty that his "family members were taken hostage because of my political activities."

But he vowed to fight on: "I'm absolutely sure that if they isolate me, if they jail me, someone else will take my place."

The verdict is expected on Jan. 15.

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Laura Mills and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.

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