KIROV, Russia (AFP) – A Russian court on Thursday sentenced protest leader Alexei Navalny to five years in a penal colony after finding him guilty of embezzlement, a verdict which will disqualify one of President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics from politics.
Russian opposition activists condemned the sentence as a blatant move to punish Navalny, 37, for opposing the Kremlin just as he was set to stand in Moscow’s mayoral election.
The verdict also drew swift condemnation from the United States, the European Union and Germany.
Judge Sergei Blinov said he found Navalny guilty of defrauding the local government in the northern Kirov region of 16 million rubles ($500,000) in a timber deal while acting as an unpaid advisor to the local authorities in 2009.
“Navalny… committed a grave crime,” said Blinov as he delivered the sentence. Navalny’s co-accused, Pyotr Ofitserov, was also found guilty and sentenced to four years in a prison colony.
The sentence is the most politically-explosive judgement in Russia since anti-Kremlin tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed in 2005.
“So. Don’t all get bored without me,” Navalny told supporters in his last Twitter message from the courtroom before being handcuffed. “And most importantly, don’t be idle.”
He then handed his smartphone to his wife Yulia, hugged her and his mother, shook his father’s hand and was led away by bailiffs, an AFP correspondent in court reported.
Yulia made a defiant and emotional appearance on the steps of the Lenin district court to declare that the fight against the Kremlin would continue even with her husband in prison.
“I believe that everything will be okay. We will win, and you please must also believe that everything will be great,” she said.
Navalny, who emerged as a powerful political force in mass anti-Putin protests, has dismissed the charges against him as absurd and a Kremlin set-up to end his political career.
Prosecutors in Kirov, a sleepy city 900 kilometres (560 miles) northeast of Moscow thronged by dozens of reporters for the hearing, had sought a six-year prison colony sentence.
Anti-Kremlin activists responded with dismay to the verdict, slamming it as the latest effort by Putin to snuff out the slightest hint of opposition to his 13 years of rule.
“It is completely fabricated from start to finish and even the judge could not say what the reason for the crime was, what was the point,” former cabinet minister and anti-Kremlin activist Boris Nemtsov, who was in court, told reporters.