Russian star Artemi Panarin has taken leave from his ice hockey team after being accused of assaulting a woman 10 years ago, in what is being described as an "intimidation tactic" for speaking out against President Vladimir Putin.
Panarin - who plays for the New York Rangers - is one of the few elite Russian athletes openly critical of the country's President.
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The Rangers say the case is fabricated and that Panarin has been targeted because he supports detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
He has publicly backed Navalny, who was jailed this month on what the opposition politician said were politically motivated charges.
Navalny famously suffered a poisoning widely believed to be an assassination attempt by the Kremlin.
He is now serving a 32-month sentence in a case that has unified Russia's opposition movement.
Panarin recently expressed his support for Navalny by posting a photo of the opposition leader with his family captioned, “Freedom for Navalny.”
The New York Rangers say the ugly allegations against their player are clearly an act of retaliation for his support of Navalny and vocal opposition to President Putin.
"This is clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events," the NHL team said in a statement on Monday.
"Artemi is obviously shaken and concerned and will take some time away from the team.
"The Rangers fully support Artemi and will work with him to identify the source of these unfounded allegations.”
New York star denies allegations against him
The Rangers said Panarin, who was a finalist last season for the league's most valuable player award, "vehemently and unequivocally denies" the allegations.
It comes after former NHL player Andrei Nazarov told a Russian news website that Panarin had been detained after beating up an 18-year-old woman at a hotel bar in Riga, Latvia in 2011.
The man behind the allegations against Panarin has been fired by the KHL on several occasions for his own history of assault allegations, which include attacking fans with a stick and beating up doctor for the national team.
Nazarov, who also briefly coached Panarin in Russia, has in the past been critical of the player's support for Navalny and opposition to the President.
Panarin openly trashed Vladimir Putin in a 2019 interview, saying that he thinks the Russian President “no longer understands what’s right and what’s wrong."
He added: "Psychologically, it’s not easy for him to judge the situation soberly. He has a lot of people who influence his decisions.
“If everyone is walking around you for 20 years telling you what a great guy you are and how great a job you are doing, you will never see your mistakes."
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