Russian Court Jails Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader and Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny was convicted of embezzlement Thursday and sentenced to five years in prison, a harsh ruling his supporters called an obvious attempt to shut down a foe of President Vladimir Putin and intimidate other opposition activists.
In a surprise move, prosecutors later asked that he be kept free pending appeal, possibly reflecting an attempt to soothe public anger and to lend legitimacy to a mayoral race expected to be won by a Kremlin-backed politician.
Navalny, who rose to fame as an anti-corruption blogger before leading unprecedented protests that revealed the depths of anger against the Kremlin, was found guilty of heading a group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company in 2009.
Backers say he is innocent, calling the trial unfair and the evidence against him shoddy. The U.S. and EU both criticized the ruling within hours, arguing that the case appeared to be politically motivated.
Navalny had expected the ruling and protests were planned even before it was handed down, setting up a potential confrontation with police, who routinely crack down harshly on unsanctioned rallies. By early evening, several hundred protesters gathered outside Red Square, shouting “Freedom!” amid thick police cordons. Police detained some of the demonstrators, but didn’t immediately move to disperse the rally.
In court, the 37-year-old lawyer played with his smartphone for much of the nearly 3 ½-hour verdict reading. A post on his Twitter account after the sentence was announced appeared to encourage supporters to continue his work: “Oh, well. Don’t get bored without me. And, importantly, don’t be idle.”
Navalny handed the phone and his watch to his wife, Yulia, before bailiffs took custody of him and a co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov, who was given a four-year sentence.