MOSCOW Russia has opened a fraud case into election funding against financial backers of Alexei Navalny, who stood as Moscow mayor after leading street protests against President Vladimir Putin.
Russia's Investigative Committee said on Friday police were searching addresses in Moscow linked to city politician Konstantin Yankauskas and entrepreneurs Nikolai Lyaskin and Vladimir Ashurkov, who it described as "close acquaintances and fellow fighters" of Navalny, who is held under house arrest.
Yankauskas said the investigation was "purely political" and intended to disrupt their campaigning for a city election in September in which they hope to build on support for Navalny and overturn pro-Putin dominance.
The Investigative Committee said the three were suspected of election law violations and large-scale fraud, related to their funding of Navalny's campaign to run for mayor last year.
It said 10 million roubles (172,133 pounds) that the three had raised from Navalny supporters via the Internet may not been used for the advertised purpose of funding Navalny's election.
"The investigation has reason to suppose that Yankauskas, Lyaskin and Ashurkov stole the collected funds, despite the announcement about collecting exclusively for the political activity of Navalny," it said in a statement.
The statement also said some of the funds had been sent from donors with Internet addresses abroad. Putin has often criticised foreign funding of political organisations.
"It's purely political," Yankauskas told Ekho Moskvy radio, adding the searches were prompted by a desire on the part of the authorities "to create problems for us in the Moscow city parliament election" in September.
Navalny, who rose to prominence as a blogger campaigning against corruption, was a leader of street protests that shook the Kremlin in 2011 and 2012.
Last year he was convicted of embezzling 16 million roubles (276,612 pounds) of timber in an unrelated case and sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence was later suspended, but Navalny is now under house arrest and is barred from seeking office for years due to the conviction.
In a separate case, he is also facing charges of stealing more than 30 million roubles from two companies, one of them an affiliate of French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher.
Despite the charges against him, Navalny was allowed to run for mayor of Moscow in September last year.
Although losing to pro-Kremlin incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, Navalny's 27.3 percent showing was a major upset to Russia's political system, where elections are tightly controlled and anti-establishment candidates usually marginal.
Navalny's supporters have hopes of capitalising on his political success in September's election for the city parliament, which is overwhelmingly dominated by the pro-Putin United Russia party.
(Additional reporting by Alissa De Carbonnel; Editing by Alison Williams)