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Billionaire Kremlin critic facing five years in jail

Alexander Lebedev, chairman of Russia's National Reserve Corporation, speaks during an interview with Reuters journalists in Moscow.

MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS

Billionaire Kremlin critic Alexander Lebedev was charged on Wednesday with "hooliganism" over a televised punch-up and faces up to five years in jail in a case which he says is a vendetta by President Vladimir Putin.

The 52-year-old backer of British newspapers The Independent and London's Evening Standard, whose net worth was put at $1.1-billion by Forbes magazine in March, was also ordered by Russia's Investigative Committee not to leave the country.

Mr. Lebedev, who also owns a Russian bank and a campaigning Russian newspaper, says he is being punished for criticizing the Kremlin and sees his treatment as part of a crackdown on dissent since Putin returned to the presidency in May.

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Mr. Lebedev refused to sign a form limiting his travel, citing legal rights, but does not plan to leave Russia, a source familiar with the situation told Reuters after the federal investigative body posted the charges on its website.

He faces the same charge of hooliganism motivated by religious, political, racial, ethnic or ideological hatred as three women from the punk band Pussy Riot who were jailed in August after bursting into a Russian Orthodox church and belting out a profanity-laced anti-Putin protest.

Mr. Lebedev is rare among the so-called Russian oligarchs in openly criticizing the Kremlin, but he has denied any involvement in opposition politics.

"I know the position of the president," he said in an interview on Tuesday.

"He thinks it is true that I have been funding [the opposition], so I was violating rule No. 1 - if you have money you should not interfere [in politics]."

Prosecutors opened an investigation last year into Mr. Lebedev for throwing a punch at property developer Sergei Polonsky, himself a one-time billionaire, while they were on a primetime television talk show.

Mr. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment. He had previously said that the Kremlin had not put pressure on Mr. Lebedev or other wealthy Russians over their business interests.

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Most wealthy Russian businessmen have avoided criticizing the Kremlin since the arrest in 2003 of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky after he defied Mr. Putin by taking an interest in opposition politics. He is still in prison.

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