By Gabriela Baczynska
Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in jail for theft on Thursday, an unexpectedly tough punishment which his supporters said proved President Vladimir Putin was a dictator ruling by repression.
Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who emerged as the opposition’s de facto leader in the biggest protests against Putin since he took power in 2000, reached out and touched his wife Yulia’s hand before guards led him away in handcuffs.
“Shame! Disgrace!” protesters chanted outside the court in Kirov, about 900 km (550 miles) northeast of Moscow. Some of his supporters burst into tears and other opposition activists could barely hide their shock and anger.
State prosecutors had asked the court to jail Navalny for six years on charges of organising a scheme to steal at least 16 million roubles ($494,400) from a local timber firm when he was advising the Kirov region governor in 2009.
But even a five-year sentence means he will not be able to run in the next presidential election in 2018 or for Moscow mayor in September as he had planned. Some political analysts had expected the court to hand down a suspended sentence to avoid prison time but still rule out any political challenge.
“The court, having examined the case, has established that Navalny organised a crime and … the theft of property on a particularly large scale,” Judge Sergei Blinov said, reading rapidly and without emotion. He hardly looked up.
Navalny, 37, a powerful orator who has accused the authorities of being “swindlers and thieves”, stood silent with a puzzled expression as he listened to the verdict. He spent much of the time in court sending messages by Twitter.
PUTIN THE “TOAD”
In a final message from court he referred to Putin as a toad who is abusing Russia’s vast oil revenues to stay in power and made clear he expected his supporters to press his campaign.
“Okay, don’t miss me. More important – don’t be idle,” he wrote on Twitter.
Navalny said repeatedly that the charge against him was politically motivated and the verdict would be dictated by Putin.
The Kremlin denies that Putin uses the courts for political ends. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, did not immediately answer calls after the sentence was pronounced.
Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who attended the hearing, said he was “shocked”.
“With today’s ruling, Putin has told the whole world he is a dictator who sends his political opponents to prison,” Nemtsov told Reuters.
Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a longtime Putin ally, saw the Kremlin’s hand in the tough verdict.
“Navalny’s sentence looks less like punishment than an attempt to isolate him from society and the electoral process,” he wrote on Twitter.
Share markets fell in Moscow after the sentencing, highlighting concerns among investors about the rule of law and possible social unrest. The opposition plans a series of protests, including one in Moscow later on Thursday.
Navalny is the most prominent opposition leader to be tried in Russia since Soviet times.
In his closing remarks at the trial earlier this month, he said his jailing would not end opposition to Putin.
Putin’s critics accuse the president, who returned to the Kremlin in May last year for a third term, of using the courts to silence his opponents after facing the biggest protests of the 13-year rule, which at their peak attracted tens of thousands of people in big cities.
The opposition accuses him of launching a crackdown to stifle dissent and crushing the protests by intimidation.
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.