Russia suspends opposition leader's sentence. Will it quiet criticism of Kremlin? (+video)
The case of Russian anticorruption crusader and former Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny has put a spotlight on politically motivated trials in the country.
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A Russian appeals court today suspended the five-year prison sentence handed down over the summer to opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny. The ruling, some observers say, highlights the administration's attempts to keep opposition demonstrations under control and international criticism of Russia to a minimum, particularly in the lead-up to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.
“The political motivation in this case is obvious,” Mr. Navalny told the judge in today’s hearing, noting that the prosecution’s case was based on false testimony and that he was refused any opportunity to bring witnesses of his own.
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“Everything that happened last summer and everything that happens today depends on Putin,” Navalny said. “All the prosecutors, all the lawyers, all the judges are just extras here.”
In July, a lower court handed down an embezzlement conviction to the outspoken lawyer who rose to prominence during large-scale street protests against President Vladimir Putin in 2011 and 2012. He was released the next day pending the outcome of his appeal.
Some political observers felt jailing Navalny could empower the opposition and make him into a martyr, reports Russia’s official RIA Novosti news agency.
In the interim, Navalny ran in the high profile Moscow mayoral race where he won a solid – and some say legitimizing – 27 percent of the vote against a Putin-allied incumbent. His campaign touched on widespread corruption under President Putin and anti-migrant sentiments, reports Agence France-Presse.
Since the court today did not overturn Mr. Navalny’s guilty verdict, he is unable to run for public office until his suspended sentence is fulfilled. He has expressed interest in running for president in 2018.
“The suspension of the sentence Wednesday suggested a willingness of the Kremlin to accept the trade-off in greater legitimacy for the political system here in exchange for tolerating Mr. Navalny’s often stinging criticism of Mr. Putin,” reports The New York Times.
Reuters notes that if he had been jailed today, street protests could have exploded once again and it would have invited more international attention and criticism of the rule of law and democracy in Russia.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Russia correspondent, Fred Weir, reported in July that when asked “Do you think that the trial of Alexei Navalny is the result of his political activities and his opposition views?” nearly 60 percent of Russian respondents answered "yes," while just under 20 percent said "no."
“Increasing numbers of people insist that they have no faith in Russia's courts, nor in the law enforcement bodies that choose which investigations to pursue and what evidence to admit,” Mr. Weir wrote.
They include US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who issued a distinctly undiplomatic Tweet after hearing of the [July 18, 2013] verdict: "We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of @Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial." Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who has repeatedly lambasted Mr. Putin for hijacking Russia's democratic experiment, posted a comment on his foundation's website contending that the conviction of Navalny "is proof that we do not have independent courts" in Russia.
The key reason that many long-term observers of Russia have arrived at this conclusion is that Navalny, who is one of Russia's best-known opposition figures due to his highly-effective anticorruption blogging, is far from the only anti-Kremlin politician to have been targeted with elaborate criminal charges.
A string of criminal cases have been brought against Navalny in recent months, a move AFP describes as resembling “an attempt to neutralise an opposition figure seen as a potential national force.”
Navalny isn’t alone. According to a study by political scientist Mikhail Tulsky, nearly half of all independent mayors in Russia have been arrested or kicked out of office over various criminal allegations over the past three years, reports the Monitor.
And since Putin reclaimed the presidency in elections last year, other “leading lights of the informal opposition” have undergone prosecution, reports the BBC. It raises “suspicions that the Kremlin is using the legal system to disable its enemies.”