Conviction of Russian activist Navalny draws condemnation

Opposition leaders says the five-year prison sentence for anticorruption campaigner Alexei Navalny – who had just registered to run for mayor of Moscow – was politically motivated. 

Evgeny Feldman/AP
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, center, and his former colleague Pyotr Ofitserov, foreground, listen to the judge in a court in Kirov, Russia on Thursday, July 18, 2013.

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The conviction and five-year sentence of a prominent Russian anticorruption campaigner has reverberated throughout the country, with opposition members calling it proof of President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on dissent.

Opposition activist and corruption blogger Alexei Navalny was convicted of embezzling nearly a half-million dollars from a Russian timber company while advising the governor of Kirov in 2009. The court’s ruling came the day after Mr. Navalny registered to run for mayor of Moscow, according to RIA Novosti. The conviction, unless appealed and pending at the time of elections, will bar him from the mayoral race, reports The Wall Street Journal. Navalny has said he would like to run for president in the 2018 election.

"The court, having examined the case, has established that Navalny organized a crime and ... the theft of property on a particularly large scale," Judge Sergei Blinov read in the verdict, explicitly stating there were no “political motives” to the ruling.

A European Union spokesman criticized the court’s decision, stating that the charges were unfounded and that Navalny’s imprisonment presented “serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia,” according to the BBC. US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted, "We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of [Navalny] and the apparent political motivations in this trial."

Navalny’s case is the most prominent against an opposition member in the country, according to The Washington Post:

[A]s he was led into custody, it became clear that those in power in Russia have chosen not to be subtle as they crack down on the opposition….

Navalny had been hoping for a suspended sentence, in the belief that the Kremlin would want to avoid a backlash if it appeared too harsh.

"With today's ruling, Putin has told the whole world he is a dictator who sends his political opponents to prison," opposition politician Boris Nemtsov told Reuters.

Before the trial began in the spring, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin “does not interfere, can't interfere, and in this case has no right to interfere.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Moscow correspondent, Fred Weir, described Navalny as one of “seven Russians to watch” after large-scale protests against vote-rigging broke out in December 2011. The demonstrations created “fresh leaders” in Russia that uniquely arose “without the Kremlin's backing.”

Arrested in an unsanctioned rally to protest electoral fraud on Dec. 5, Navalny emerged from prison 15 days later with his credibility as an activist greatly enhanced and some people already citing him as a possible presidential contender capable of challenging Putin. Nominations for … presidential polls are already closed, but Navalny has made clear that he will work against Putin and could run against him if it became possible.

Addressing the massive Dec. 24 rally in Moscow, Navalny flirted with sedition by remarking, "I can see that there are enough people here to seize the Kremlin right now. We are a peaceful force and will not do it now. But if these rogues and thieves try to go on cheating us, if they continue telling lies and stealing from us, we will take what belongs to us with our own hands."

According to Reuters, Navalny has “captured the mood” of Russians disappointed and disenchanted with Putin’s lengthy rule. The president took office for a third term last year, and has been accused of using courts as a tool to silence opponents.

But the opposition leader’s rise “has also been dogged by accusations that he has nationalist tendencies and his appeal is limited outside the big cities,” Reuters reports.

The BBC reports that television media in Russia paid little attention to the court proceedings, though, “in an unusual step, the court allowed the whole trial to be broadcast live online.” Navalny posted on Twitter during the trial and during the reading of his legal fate. "Okay, don't miss me. More important - don't be idle," he tweeted after his sentence was announced.

“Show me another person who, acting almost alone, has been able within a year to deal a tangible blow to a political monopoly of such magnitude,” Grigory Golosov, a St. Petersburg political scientist wrote before the trial began, according to The Washington Post. “After two decades of unbridled political ridiculousness, he has largely rehabilitated political debate as meaningful.”

Mr. Navalny’s co-defendant, Petr Ofitserov, was sentenced to four years in prison.

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