Russia’s best known protest leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has been sentenced to five years in jail on charges of theft and embezzlement in what critics said was an attempt to stop him from challenging President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.
Mr. Navalny on Thursday was found guilty of defrauding a state firm of 10,000 cubic metres of timber worth about $500,000 in 2009, when he served as non-paid adviser to the Governor of Kirov Region, 900 km from Moscow. Co-accused businessman Oleg Ofitserov, whose company purchased the timber, was sentenced to four years in prison.
Mr. Navalny and his defence counsel dismissed the charges as trumped up and politically motivated.
Mr. Navalny is the most high-profile opposition leader to be sent to jail since the breakup of the Soviet Union. He was convicted a day after registering as a candidate for mayoral elections in Moscow in September, his first foray into mainstream politics.
The 37-year-old lawyer and blogger gained recognition for busting corruption in top echelons of state power. He coined the phrase “the party of crooks and thieves”, which stuck hard to Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia. His fiery speeches at mass protests that erupted in 2011 against election fraud and Mr. Putin’s decision to reclaim presidency made him an indisputable leader of new middle-class urban opposition. Mr. Navalny has said he would like to be President to end Mr. Putin’s rule.
Analysts said Mr. Navalny was a born politician whose charisma and ability to rally crowds may catapult him to nation-wide prominence.
The five-year sentence handed down to Mr. Navalny disqualifies him from running in any election under amendments to the law passed last year.
The jailing of Mr. Navalny appears to be part of a crackdown on the opposition launched after Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin more than a year ago. Two dozen protesters are on trial on charges of attacking police at a rally on the eve of Mr. Putin’s inauguration last May.The conviction triggered spontaneous protests.
Thousands gathered near the Kremlin in response to calls in social networks. Police in advance sealed off the Red Square and adjacent Manezh Square, but people massed in nearby streets, briefly blocking traffic and shouting “Freedom to Navalny”.
It took police and Interior Ministry troops several hours to disperse the crowd, detaining dozens of activists.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Kazan and a dozen other cities.