Alexei Navalny, a leading opponent of President Vladimir Putin, will go on trial in mid-April on embezzlement charges, a Russian court said Wednesday, in a case supporters claim is politically motivated.

The case against Navalny, one of the most charismatic figures in the opposition movement against Putin, concerns a probe into a business deal that was struck by the government of the Kirov region he advised in 2009.

If found guilty, he faces up to 10 years in jail.

"The trial will begin on April 17," Sergei Blinov, a judge with the Leninsky district court in the provincial city of Kirov who will preside over the case, told AFP.

Navalny, who is facing several investigations, has already served two 15-day jail terms in Moscow for administrative offences he is deemed to have committed during anti-Putin protests.

But this is the first time Navalny will face a full-scale trial.

The 36-year-old is accused of acting in cahoots with a private firm, stealing 10,000 cubic metres of timber and causing a loss of 16 million rubles ($509,000) to the regional government.

Kirov is located some 800 kilometres (500 miles) to the northeast of Moscow.

Navalny, who made a name for himself through a series of high-profile corruption investigations, denies the charges, saying the Kremlin wants to muzzle him.

"The entire criminal case against Navalny has been made up by employees of the Russian Investigative Committee on the orders of Vladimir Putin," says the website, which was set up by Navalny and his associates.

Navalny was at the forefront of unprecedented opposition protests that shook Russia last year and critics say his upcoming trial is part of a crackdown on civil society after Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term last May.

Weeks after his inauguration, Putin signed off on a raft of laws that opponents have attacked as a bid to quash dissent.

Scores of activists now face jail time for taking part in a protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration and for alleged plans to overthrow the Russian strongman with the help of foreign sponsors.

Judge Blinov declined to further discuss the case against Navalny.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]