Alexei Navalny, one of the Russian opposition’s leading figures, was convicted of embezzlement yesterday and sentenced to five years in prison.
Navalny and his supporters claimed the case was politically driven to try to shut down the vehement Kremlin critic and intimidate his supporters.
Navalny was found guilty of heading a group that embezzled 16 million rubles’ (US$500,000) worth of timber from state-owned company Kirovles in 2009 while he worked as an unpaid adviser to the provincial governor in Kirov, about 760km east of Moscow.
The 37-year-old lawyer played with his smartphone for much of the nearly three-and-a-half-hour verdict reading.
A post on his Twitter account after the sentence was pronounced said: “Oh, well. Don’t get bored without me. And, importantly, don’t be idle.”
Navalny handed the smartphone and his watch to his wife, Yulia, before bailiffs took custody of him and co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov, who was given a four-year sentence.
Navalny first came to wide attention for vigorous blogging about corruption. He was a top leader of the wave of massive protest rallies that broke out in late 2011 after a national parliamentary election scarred by allegations of widespread fraud.
It was Navalny who first called the dominant United Russia party “the party of crooks and thieves,” a phrase that became a rallying cry for the nascent opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
More recently, he pushed his ambitions by declaring himself a candidate for this fall’s Moscow mayoral election.
The head of his campaign staff, Leonid Volkov, said a decision on whether to pull out of the race would be made only after he could consult with Navalny, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Russian news reports said Navalny would be taken to a detention facility in Kirov before being sent to a prison.
Several dozen Navalny supporters gathered outside the detention facility soon after the sentencing.
Navalny’s wife appeared composed after seeing her husband taken away in handcuffs, saying: “If someone hopes that Alexei’s investigations will cease, that’s wrong.”
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said she was concerned about the conviction and sentence, saying in a statement that the charges had not been substantiated during the trial.
“This outcome, given the procedural shortcomings, raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia,” she said.
The Russian stock market, sensitive to politically charged issues, dove within minutes of the verdict, with the main MICEX index dropping 1.4 percent before partly recovering.