Russian opposition leader Navalny sentenced to five years in jail

Russian opposition leader Navalny sentenced to five years in jail

KIROV, Russia - Reuters
Russian opposition leader Navalny sentenced to five years in jail

Russia's top opposition leader Alexei Navalny (L) stands in a courtroom in Kirov on July 18, 2013, as a Russian court delivers the verdict in the embezzlement trial of Navalny, an abrasive critic of President Vladimir Putin who risks years in prison and an end to his budding political career. AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV

Russian judge sentenced protest leader Alexei Navalny to five years in prison on Thursday after convicting him of large-scale theft in a trial Navalny said was politically motivated.

Navalny was convicted of stealing from a state timber company.

Prosecutors have asked the court to jail Navalny for six years, a term that would keep him in prison until after the next presidential election in 2018. Judge Sergei Blinov was expected to hand down a sentence later on Thursday at the trial in the city of Kirov, 900 km northeast of Moscow.

Navalny, who emerged from rallies against Putin last year as the opposition's most dynamic leader, stood silent with a puzzled expression on his face as he was found guilty.

The tall and clean-cut anti-corruption campaigner, 37, then exchanged wry smiles with his wife, Yulia, who stood behind him in court. He sent tweets on his mobile phone while standing in front of the judge in a courtroom packed with journalists and opposition activists.

"The court, having examined the case, has established that Navalny organised a crime and ... the theft of property on a particularly large scale," the judge said, reading the verdict rapidly and without emotion.

On Twitter, Navalny said the judge was simply repeating the accusations made by prosecutors and agreeing with them. "So ... there will be no nice scenario with an acquittal," he tweeted.

Navalny says the charge - organising a scheme to steal at least 16 million roubles ($494,400) from a state timber firm when he was advising the Kirov region governor in 2009 - is politically motivated because of his opposition to Putin.

The crime carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Kremlin clampdown

Navalny is the most prominent opposition leader to be tried in Russia since Soviet times.

Putin's critics accuse the president, who returned to the Kremlin in May last year for a third term, of using the law to silence his opponents after facing the biggest protests in the 13-year rule.

Putin has taken a tough stance against the opposition, which accuses him of launching a crackdown to stifle dissent following the protests, which at their peak attracted tens of thousands of people in big cities but have since dwindled.

It is also the biggest trial in Russia since the jailing of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2005 on tax evasion and fraud charges after he fell out with Putin.

Khodorkovsky's $40 billion company Yukos was then carved up and sold off, mainly into state hands. He was convicted of theft and money-laundering in a second trial in 2010.

Navalny has captured the mood of urban youth disillusioned by Putin's long rule. But he has also been dogged by accusations that he has nationalist tendencies and his appeal is limited outside the big cities.

Navalny has suggested Putin ordered the trial to silence his criticism of what he calls a political class of "swindlers and thieves" and the absence of the rule of law in Russia. The Kremlin says it does not interfere in criminal cases.