In a surprise turn of events, opposition leader Alexei Navalny was released from custody, less than 24 hours after he was sentenced to five years in prison.

A court in Kirov, where Mr. Navalny and co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov on Thursday were convicted for embezzlement, on Friday morning ordered their release pending appeal.

The judge said the arrest put the anti-corruption campaigner who is running in Moscow mayoral elections, at a disadvantage.

However, Mr. Navalny and his supporters said his release was the result of spontaneous protests that hit Moscow and other Russian cities after his conviction. Several thousand protesters filled Moscow’s main thoroughfares on Thursday night, blocking traffic and shouting anti-government slogans.

Friday’s court decision has no precedent in Russian legal practice, prompting Mr. Navalny to poke fun at the prosecutor who had asked for his release:

“I ask the court to verify the identity of the prosecutor; I doubt he is the same person who demanded my immediate arrest a day earlier.”

Analysts said the conviction of Russia’s most famous anti-corruption campaigner on what experts said were tramped-up charges will boost his popularity in the Moscow elections scheduled for early September. As of last week he was trailing far behind Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who is favoured by 76 per cent of voters. Mr Navalny is in a distant second place with 14 per cent, but his support grew by four per cent in just one week.

Mr. Navalny may yet be taken off the race if his appeal against his sentence is overturned and the guilty verdict enters into force at least nine days before the September 8 vote.

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