Kirov (Russia) (AFP) – Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday escaped being sent to jail in a controversial embezzlement case after a court converted his five-year penal colony sentence into a suspended term.
The appeal verdict meant that Navalny walked free from court although his fraud conviction, which disqualifies him from politics and his supporters say was ordered by the Kremlin, remains in place.
The three judges hearing the appeal at the regional court in the northern Kirov region said in a verdict they had ruled to “change the verdict for Alexei Navalny into a suspended term.”
The dramatic ruling came after President Vladimir Putin’s most vehement critic made a surprisingly robust showing in a key Moscow election in September.
“It is all absolutely obvious that all the decisions, first on the real sentence and the change now to suspended, are taken definitely not here but personally by Vladimir Putin,” Navalny said after the ruling.
“I have not the faintest idea what is going on in his head, why he changes his decision.”
The suspended sentence still bars Navalny — who has openly declared presidential ambitions — from standing for office in the foreseeable future.
“The authorities are trying with all their strength to in any case push me out of the political battle,” he said. “It is absolutely clear they will not manage to push out me and my colleagues from this political fight. We will continue.”
Navalny, who also faces several other criminal probes, said he would appeal the conviction. “Naturally, we will appeal,” he told reporters in the courtroom.
Navalny’s co-accused Pyotr Ofitserov, who was previously sentenced to four years in a penal colony, also received a suspended sentence.
Wednesday’s hearing was uncharacteristically swift, with Navalny saying he saw no sense in participating in debates.