MOSCOW — Russian prosecutors charged blogger and anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny on Tuesday with embezzlement, a statute that carries a sentence of five to 10 years in prison, the most direct measure to date against a leader of the protest movement that erupted in December.
The State Investigative Committee accused Navalny of organizing a scheme to steal timber from a state-owned company called KirovLes when he was acting as an unpaid adviser to the governor of the Kirov region, resulting in losses of just under $500,000 to the regional budget. Navalny was released on his own recognizance but signed a promise not to leave Moscow while the charges are pending.
The charge marks a threshold for President Vladimir Putin, who for 12 years as paramount leader has refrained from criminal prosecutions of activist leaders, sidelining them with softer methods like short-term detentions and limited access to television. The charges Tuesday suggest that the Kremlin’s eagerness to limit Navalny’s impact outweighs the risk of a political backlash.
As he emerged from the hearing Tuesday, Navalny called the charges ‘‘absurd and very strange.’’