MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia's top cop has a new star role at the heart of the Putin regime. His mission? Shut down the opposition.
Alexander Bastrykin's Investigative Committee has become President Vladimir Putin's de facto political police, accountable to him alone. The fearsome organization was given the new mandate after Putin returned for a third term as president last year, embittered and shaken by huge protests against his rule.
As new raids, arrests and charges hit the opposition seemingly every week, Bastrykin's inquisitorial zeal and the degree to which charges often strain credulity show how the Kremlin is ratcheting up its longstanding practice of using the law as a tool to crush political enemies.
"Bastrykin is a man who follows any order -- he'll shut anyone down on any charge -- and that's what makes him so valuable to Putin," Alexei Navalny, a leading anti-corruption activist embroiled in four separate legal battles with the Investigative Committee, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Russia's opposition, weakened and fractured after the protests petered out, is now forced to spend much of its time fighting often outlandish allegations from the Investigative Committee. Navalny is to go on trial in April on charges of leading an organized crime group that stole more than 10,000 cubic meters of timber worth 16 million rubles (about $500,000) while he worked for a provincial governor.
Several activists face charges based on a documentary-style TV show that said they were pawns of a minor Georgian lawmaker, Givi Targamadze, whom the show depicted as a murky figure working in league with rogue oligarchs to seize the Kremlin. When one of the defendants, Leonid Razvozzhayev, said he had been kidnapped in Ukraine and tortured into signing a confession, investigators deported him to Siberia on charges of stealing 500 fur hats in 1997, even though he had been cleared of the charges long ago.
"Those charges are obviously crazy and have no legal basis, but to some degree, that's part of the point," Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant, said. "It shows that all legal measures have been thrown out the window, and that scares people."
With Putin's backing, Bastrykin appears to have a free hand. Ostensibly, his agency is a Russian counterpart to the FBI, handling special crimes like murders, corruption cases and organized crime. In practice, however, the Investigative Committee recalls the FBI under its volatile founder J. Edgar Hoover, who abused the bureau's considerable power to harass dissenters and settle political scores.
Last June, the ruddy-faced Bastrykin drove Sergei Sokolov, a journalist at the fiercely anti-Putin newspaper Novaya Gazeta, into a wood near Moscow and threatened to behead him and dismember his body so that it could not be found. Sokolov fled the country in terror, returning only after Bastrykin apologized for what he called an "emotional outburst." Courts have rejected Navalny's appeals for an investigation into the incident.
Navalny's battle with Bastrykin has long crossed over into open enmity. A few weeks after Navalny appealed to have Bastrykin investigated last summer, Bastrykin publicly harangued investigators for closing a case against him, thundering from a podium: "There will be no forgiveness! There will be no mercy!"
The investigation was subsequently reopened. Navalny then published documents alleging Bastrykin had not paid taxes and used false documents when selling a Czech real estate firm.
Since then, Navalny has faced a torrent of accusations in the four criminal investigations, repeated again and again on Kremlin-friendly TV. One alleges he embezzled 100 million rubles (about $3.25 million) from a now-defunct opposition party in 2007, even though no members of the party reported any money stolen.
The legal onslaught has severely hampered the corruption-fighting organization Navalny runs by scaring away major donors and monopolizing his time. The threat of jail time, meanwhile, has been a factor in the waning protests, which once gathered upward of 100,000 people.
"They don't even need to put these people in jail," said Yuri Skuratov, Russia's prosecutor general from 1995 to 1999. "They just need the charges to hang over them like the Sword of Damocles so that they behave properly -- and if you start acting too radically, the investigators will come and get you."
In power since 2000, Putin faced major public discontent for the first time after his party won a parliamentary election in December 2011, helped by what independent observers considered widespread fraud. Protesters took to the streets, denouncing Putin and his loyal election commissioner Vladimir Churov, whom they dubbed "The Wizard." After Putin won his third term in March 2012, the Kremlin's attitude toward the protesters hardened.