A Russian court freed political opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Friday after sentencing him to five years in prison 24 hours earlier. The court convicted Navalny of conspiring in 2009 to embezzle 16 million rubles from a state-controlled timber company.
Soon after the court found him guilty, a group of prosecutors requested Navalany be released, pending appeal. The judge agreed, saying that keeping him in prison violated his right to run in Moscow’s upcoming mayoral elections. Navalny expressed interest, but did not commit, to running for office this fall. Judge Ignatiy Embasinov said Navalny’s incarceration would “prevent him from exercising his rights of being elected.”
Navalny is known for protesting election fraud and accusing government agencies, members of Parliament, and state bankers of corruption. He first coined the popular name “party of crooks and thieves” for the dominant United Russia party.
Navalny was convinced political motives prompted his conviction, which he said “had been vetted by the presidential administration.” Scores of Russian citizens and political leaders around the world agreed, and spoke out against the sentencing.
Mikhail Gorbachev said in a statement the “whole story leaves a sad impression. I am convinced that using the courts against political opponents is unacceptable.”
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former boss of Russian oil company OAO Yukos, said, “In Russia, there is nothing unusual about finding political opponents of the regime guilty of criminal offenses … our law enforcement and judicial system routinely held up opponents of the regime as ordinary criminals.”
After Navalny’s conviction, several thousand Russian citizens protested in Manezhnaya Square next to the Kremlin, chanting “Freedom!” and “Putin is a thief!”
Political consultant Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow told news agency Interfax, “The authorities have decided to avoid a scandal in connection with the elections. In Moscow, there are many members of the middle class and it is important for them that opposition leaders participate.” He said he believed the sudden change in the court’s decision was an effort to maintain an appearance of legitimacy in the mayoral elections.