MOSCOW — Alexei Navalny, a driving force behind massive protests against Vladimir Putin's rule, on Tuesday faced charges of theft of state property that come amid a widening Kremlin crackdown on dissent.

Navalny rejected the charges, which carry a 10-year prison term if he's convicted, and follow the recent jailing of opposition activists and the passage of new repressive legislation.

The State Investigative Committee said Tuesday that it suspects Navalny of organizing a scheme to steal assets from a state timber company totaling 16 million rubles (about half a million dollars). He was ordered not to leave the city. Navalny called the charges "weird" and baseless.

"The charges are absolutely absurd," he told reporters.

Over the winter, charismatic and energetic Navalny spearheaded a series of opposition rallies in Moscow that drew up to 100,000 to the streets ahead of the March vote in which Putin won a third presidential term. The 36-year-old corruption-fighting lawyer and popular blogger, who has over 270,000 followers on Twitter and reached tens of thousands through his blog, has played a key role in rallying Russia's young Internet generation against Putin's rule.

The Kremlin fired back after the election with a series of arrests of opposition activists. Parliament, controlled by Putin's loyalists, also rushed through a bill that raised fines 150-fold for those taking part in unsanctioned protests. Another bill passed this month requires non-governmental groups receiving funding from abroad and engaging in political activity to register as foreign agents.

In another demonstration of a tougher line on dissent, three Russian feminist rockers went on trial for performing a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral against Putin's return as president on charges that carry a punishment of up to seven years in prison.

Their trial has caused public outcry and strong condemnation from rights groups who declared the three women prisoners of conscience. "What is going right now reminds me the Middle Ages," Navalny said.

The probe against Navalny is focusing at events dating back to 2009 when he served as an adviser to a provincial governor in the Kirov region. Investigators allege that he colluded with timber company officials to rob it. It follows a previous probe into similar allegations, which was closed earlier this year for lack of evidence.

Investigation Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin has recently chided a local investigator for closing that case. Under the renewed probe, investigators reworded the charges, which carry a heavier punishment compared to those dropped.

Navalny, who owes his popularity to investigating rampant official corruption, targeted Bastrykin this week, claiming that the chief investigator has covertly obtained Czech residency permit and bought an apartment in Prague. Bastrykin defended himself in an interview with the daily Izvestia, admitting that he bought the apartment but denying having the residency permit.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt expressed concern over fresh charges against Navalny. "We should be concerned with attempts in Russia to silence fierce opposition activist Alexei Navalny," he tweeted.


Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.