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Russia May Pursue Criminal Inquiry Into Whistle-Blowing Lawyer

Russian Oil Pipeline Amidsts Electrical TowersFeb. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Russian federal prosecutors cleared the way for a criminal investigation into whistle-blowing lawyer Alexey Navalny, overturning a decision at the regional level to drop the case.

The Investigative Committee in Moscow said it reversed the decision because its branch in the Kirov region northeast of Moscow hadn't made a "proper assessment" of Navalny's actions as an adviser to the regional governor.

Regional prosecutors opened the probe on Dec. 10. Three weeks earlier, Navalny published on his website what he said was a report by the state budget watchdog showing that officials at oil pipeline operator OAO Transneft embezzled $4 billion while building a link to the Pacific Ocean that opened a year late in December 2009. The allegation has been denied by the company and the Audit Chamber watchdog.

Top officials including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have publicly backed the need for an investigation into Navalny's claims. At the same time, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in late December that the lawyer's campaign "has nothing to do with the interests of minority shareholders or transparency at state companies."

The Investigative Committee said on its website today that Navalny had threatened with dismissal the manager of a state timber firm to pressure him to sign a contract with another firm. The lawyer was working at the time as an unpaid adviser on corporate governance to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh, who has come to his defense.

Yale Fellow

Navalny is being investigated for allegedly costing the state timber company more than 1 million rubles ($34,200) by organizing a money-losing contract.

"I think they're trying to scare me," Navalny said in a Dec. 15 phone interview from New Haven, Connecticut, as he prepared to return to Russia after six months as a world fellow at Yale University. He faces as many as five years in jail if charged and convicted of causing damage through fraud or abuse of trust.

Navalny couldn't be reached for comment today. His lawyer, Dmitry Volev, said he couldn't comment immediately when reached by Bloomberg News.

The Investigative Committee said Navalny's case had been transferred to investigators for the Volga Federal District, which includes the Kirov region, for "additional review" and to "avoid possible pressure on the investigation."


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