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Russian Opposition Leader Says Extortion Case Politically Motivated

Regional Yabloko leader Vasily Popov
ST. PETERSBURG (Reuters) -- A Russian opposition leader has said he is being punished for criticizing a pro-Kremlin official after a court found him guilty of extortion.

Vasily Popov, a member of the federal council of the liberal Yabloko party who heads the city council of Petrozavodsk in northwestern Russia, was given a suspended seven-year sentence and fined 400,000 rubles ($11,000).

The city court said in the verdict it had found Popov guilty of extorting a large sum of money from a council member, threatening to publish materials compromising him.

Popov, the only Yabloko member running the council of a major Russian city, said he would appeal against the sentence.

"This is a pure politically motivated case from the very beginning to the end," he told Reuters by telephone from Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia on the Finnish border. "I believe this is revenge by the local authorities and their attempt at self-defense."

Yabloko, meaning "apple" in Russian, has been critical of what it says is the repression of civil rights and democratic freedoms in Russia, but has lost ground to pro-Kremlin parties such as United Russia and Fair Russia.

Yabloko performed poorly in the last parliamentary election in December 2007, winning 1.6 percent of the vote nationwide, well below the 7 percent required to secure seats in the lower house, the State Duma.

In 2007, Popov sent a letter to then Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing Karelia's regional head Sergei Katanandov of corruption and requesting he be sacked.

Popov said legal proceedings against him had been launched shortly after he sent the letter to Putin.

Katanandov's team dismissed Popov's stand-off with the regional head.

"I believe it is simply his self-promotion. Popov appears not to miss the smallest opportunity to turn everything to his own advantage," Katanandov's spokesman Maxim Tikhonov told Reuters by telephone from Petrozavodsk.

Popov, who still holds his post of city council chairman, said he would continue his fight against the pro-Kremlin regional boss.

Popov said he sent the letter to Putin "after we uncovered numerous corruption cases in the local administration…. All this is still true and has only become worse."

"We will probably send the same statement to [current President Dmitry] Medvedev," he said.