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Kremlin critic Navalny found guilty, but avoids jail

Dmitry Serebrkyakov, AFP | Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (pictured centre) and his brother Oleg (pictured right)

A Russian court on Tuesday found Alexei Navalny, the country’s most prominent political opposition leader, guilty of embezzlement, handing him a suspended three-and-a-half year sentence.

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Navalny led mass protests against President Vladimir Putin three years ago, and his trial is seen as part of a campaign to stifle dissent.

The ruling comes a day after Navalny’s verdict date was unexpectedly moved forward by nearly two weeks from January 15.

Judge Yelena Korobchenko found Navalny and his brother Oleg guilty of embezzlement. But while Navalny received a suspended sentence, his brother was handed a three-and-a-half year prison term and handcuffed in the courtroom in a move that Navalny angrily denounced as political "pressure."

His supporters have promised to hold a protest on the Manezh Square in front of the Kremlin on Tuesday evening after the ruling. Within hours of an event being created on Facebook for the demonstration, over 3,000 had registered as attending.

Olga Mikhailova, Navalny’s lawyer, said that the sudden change in her client’s trial was a strategic move.

“The only thing that comes to mind is that this is an attempt to prevent a large number of people who disagree with the verdict taking to the streets,” she said. “December 30 is a very convenient date, people are busy with New Year’s festivities, some have left town.”

Navalny is accused of stealing 30 million roubles ($536,193) from two firms – including an affiliate of the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher – between 2008 and 2012, in a case that also involves his brother, Oleg.

Currently under house arrest, Navalny is serving a suspended five-year prison term for a separate conviction last year, which his supporters have criticised as a sham.

The Kremlin denies allegations that it uses the courts to persecute opponents.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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