A Russian court on Thursday sentenced protest leader Alexei Navalny to five years in prison for embezzlement. Navalny rose from obscure blogger to spearhead of the opposition, denouncing corruption within Putin’s party.
Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in jail on Thursday at a trial he says is politically motivated because of his opposition to President Vladimir Putin.
The judge handed down his sentence on Thursday at the trial in the industrial city of Kirov, 900 km (550 miles) northeast of Moscow that will likely put an end to Navalny’s budding career in politics.
Navalny, 37, who emerged as a powerful new political force in mass protests against Putin that broke out in December 2011, dismisses charges he colluded to steal money in a timber deal while acting as an unpaid advisor to the governor in the northern Kirov region.
There was very little chance of a not guilty verdict, but what Mr Navalny’s supporters were hoping for was a suspended sentence, according to FRANCE 24’s Moscow correspondent, Shaun Walker.
“In recent days, a lot of people thought that it may have been possible for Mr Navalny to be given a suspended sentence that would bar him from running for elections, but nobody thought the Kremlin would send him to jail and risk getting people angry,” said Shaun Walker.
“What we have seen is the complete opposite, a really tough sentence, a really tough message from the Kremlin, since nobody doubts that the sentence was decided at the highest levels of Russian power,” he added.
Part of a wider crackdown
The verdict comes a day after Navalny was accepted as a candidate for the high-profile Moscow mayoral race in September, raising the bizarre prospect that he could run for office while already behind bars.
A conviction disqualifies Navalny from politics, but this would only take effect after the appeals process is exhausted, so he could still theoretically campaign during this period.
The trial is seen by the opposition as part of a wider crackdown on activists who took to the streets to demand an end to Putin's rule in the run-up to his return to the Kremlin in May 2012 for a third term.
Many have spent months in cells awaiting trial and face long jail terms for crowd violence.
Navalny has eloquently defended himself in the hurried trial, which began in April. Judge Blinov, who has never acquitted anyone in his career, has listened largely silently, sometimes taking notes.
The trial has given little explanation for the alleged embezzlement, given Navalny's apparently humdrum lifestyle in a small flat in a Moscow suburb with his wife Yulia and two children.
An outspoken critic of Putin
With his streetwise rhetoric and charisma, Navalny emerged as the most effective of the opposition leaders who led the unprecedented protests against Putin.
Navalny has said he wants to challenge Putin in the next presidential elections in 2018 and coined the phrase "party of crooks and thieves" to describe the ruling United Russia party.
But as FRANCE 24’s Shaun Walker points out, five years puts Mr Navalny in jail until mid-2018, which is "conveniently" right after the next presidential election.
In a typically uncompromising gesture, Navalny this week published a detailed report accusing one of Putin's closest allies, the head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, of possessing vast undeclared property and business assets.
But some within the opposition have criticised Navalny, saying he lacks a clear vision for the country beyond cracking down on corruption and bluntly vowing to jail opponents should he win power.
Navalny has also yet to win wide recognition beyond his powerbase in Moscow, where he has become a hero for many in the Internet-savvy middle class who yearn to live in a different Russia.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Date created : 2013-07-18