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Prominent Russian opposition leader Navalny convicted of embezzlement

Sergey Brovko, AFP | Russian high-profile anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny at a court hearing in Kirov on December 5, 2016.

A Russian court on Wednesday handed opposition leader Alexei Navalny a five-year suspended sentence for embezzlement that could end his bid to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin in the 2018 polls.

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In a webcast hearing, Judge Alexei Vtyurin found Navalny guilty of embezzling timber worth about $500,000 (€467,000). The previous guilty verdict was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Russia violated Navalny's right to a fair trial.

The court also handed Navalny's co-defendant a four-year suspended sentence.

Responding to the verdict, the prominent Russian opposition figure said the verdict was a sign that the Kremlin considered him “too dangerous”. He also said he planned to appeal the court decision and maintained that he would not scrap his plans to take part in the Russian presidential election.

The trial was held in Kirov, a city nearly 800 kilometres east of Moscow.

Identical verdicts, says Navalny

Earlier Wednesday, during a break in the proceedings, Navalny told reporters that he and his lawyers were comparing this verdict with the text of the 2013 verdict and found them to be identical.

"You can come over and see that the judge is reading exactly the same text, which says a lot about the whole trial," Navalny told reporters, adding that even the typos in the names of companies were identical in both rulings.

Navalny, the driving force behind massive anti-government protests in 2011 and 2012, had announced plans to run for office in December and had begun to raise funds.

Navalny's campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, insisted that the campaign goes on even though the guilty verdict formally bars Navalny from running.

In a post on Facebook, Volkov said that the Kremlin will ultimately decide whether Navalny will be confirmed as a presidential candidate.

"This is the political decision we need to win by campaigning," he said.

Navalny's plans to run in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election were shattered when the Kirov court found him guilty and sent him to prison. But after he spent a night in jail, the court held an emergency hearing and released Navalny on a suspended sentence.

The unusual move was seen by observers as the Kremlin's decision to allow him to run against its candidate in the mayoral race in order to make it look more legitimate. Navalny came in second, garnering about a third of the vote. 

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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