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KIROV, Russia (AFP) – A Russian court on Friday unexpectedly freed protest leader Alexei Navalny pending his appeal against a five-year sentence on embezzlement charges, after his jailing prompted thousands to take to the streets in protest.

The judge in the northern city of Kirov ruled that keeping President Vladimir Putin’s top opponent in custody would deprive Navalny of his right to stand in mayoral elections in Moscow on September 8.

“What happened now is a completely unique phenomenon in the system of Russian justice,” said Navalny, who was immediately set free from the glass-fronted defendants’ cage and rushed to embrace his wife Yulia.

A lower court in the city of Kirov 900 kilometers (560 miles) northeast of Moscow had on Thursday sentenced Navalny to five years in a penal colony.

Navalny, who is a lawyer by training, was found guilty of defrauding the local government in the Kirov region of 16 million rubles ($500,000, 376,000 euros) in a timber deal while acting as an unpaid advisor to the local authorities in 2009.

Navalny’s co-accused, Pyotr Ofitserov, who was sentenced to four years in prison, was also released on Friday pending his appeal.

The sentence has thrown up another bone of contention between Moscow and Washington, with President Barack Obama due to visit Russia for the September 5-6 G20 summit in St Petersburg.

Activists said the conviction was ordered by the Kremlin to punish Navalny for daring to challenge Putin, and late Thursday thousands of his supporters rallied in Moscow and Saint Petersburg in unexpectedly large protests.

The guilty verdict disqualifies Navalny from politics, but the restriction will come into force only if the verdict is upheld on appeal, giving him time to launch a credible campaign for the powerful and visible post of Moscow mayor.

Many observers say the jailing of a high-profile mayoral candidate during the campaign was a huge embarrassment for the authorities and link the prosecutors’ decision to appeal to a possible change of heart by the Kremlin.

Legal experts said the decision to release Navalny was unprecedented and clearly politically-motivated. “That has never happened before,” lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky told AFP.

The judge in his ruling on Friday said that Navalny’s jailing would “limit his right to be elected” and put him at a disadvantage compared to other mayoral candidates.

Navalny said he was not a “pet kitten or puppy” who could be first “kicked out of the elections” and then invited back.

He said he would decide upon his return to Moscow if he would continue his campaign or boycott the polls, where he was due to challenge pro-Putin incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

More than 200 people were arrested after several thousand people rallied near the Kremlin walls in Moscow to protest Navalny’s sentencing. All have now been freed with caution.

The Moscow municipality shut down Red Square, ostensibly for “repairs”, in an apparent bid to prevent protests on the iconic Moscow landmark.

Police said that 2,500 people took to the streets in the Russian capital, while activists put the turnout at 10,000 and higher, with protests continuing into the early hours of Friday. A similar demonstration also took place in Saint Petersburg.

Navalny, who emerged as a powerful new force in mass protests in 2011-2012, said he wants to challenge Putin in the next presidential election in 2018. He has vowed to jail Putin if he comes to power.

Observers said the harsh punishment meted out to Navalny was a warning to other dissenters not to challenge Putin.

“He needs to be in jail because that is a lesson to the people of Russia: keep silent,” mass-daily Moskovsky Komsomolets said on its front-page.

The decision to jail the 37-year-old father of two also prompted global concern and risks further straining ties between Moscow and the West.

“Navalny’s harsh prison sentence is the latest example of a disturbing trend of government actions aimed at suppressing dissent in civil society in Russia,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Obama and Putin agreed in June to hold a separate summit on September 3-4, just before the G20 talks, but White House officials have been coy about whether that meeting was still scheduled.

Washington is already furious over the almost month-long stay in a Moscow airport of intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who has now applied for asylum in Russia.

The New York Times said Obama could now cancel the bilateral summit but Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday the Kremlin was still preparing for Obama’s visit to Moscow.

Photo Credit: AFP/ Yevgeny Feldman

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