Russia’s most effective anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader was found guilty of embezzlement Thursday and sentenced to five years in prison in a verdict that sent shock waves throughout the country.
The conviction of Alexei Navalny, 37, a leading critic of President Vladimir Putin with a penchant for exposés and cutting jibes, brought sharp criticism from those who believed it to be a politically driven case.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul posted on Twitter: “We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial.”
A statement released by the office of the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, said, “This outcome, given the procedural shortcomings, raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia.”
Police closed Red Square and blocked off nearby Manezh Square to prevent protesters from gathering in an unsanctioned demonstration against the verdict, but by evening a crowd of several thousand had gathered along the sidewalks of adjoining streets.
The youthful crowd spread out in different directions, making it impossible to gauge its size. In a mood more of disgust than anger, the crowd chanted, “Navalny!” and “freedom!” The police presence was heavy.
In an unexpected move, prosecutors asked for Navalny to be placed under house arrest until his sentence goes into effect in 10 days—also the appeal period—perhaps in an attempt to allow public anger to dissipate. The judge made no public comment on the request, however, and as of Thursday night Navalny remained in jail.
Even before his trial began in April in the city of Kirov, about 550 miles northeast of Moscow, Navalny said that he expected to be convicted on what he and his supporters contended were trumped-up charges. But as 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.
“This shows to what extent the government is afraid of Alexei Navalny,” Yevgenia Albats, chief editor at New Times magazine, said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station. “I think they did it because it is the main principle of security officers— not to show weakness. If you put the man on his knees, then you must finish him off.”
Prosecutors asked for a six-year term for Navalny and a lesser term for co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov. Shortly after noon, Judge Sergei Blinov sentenced Navalny to five years and Ofitserov to four. He ordered both men to immediately be taken into custody. Ofitserov’s wife cried. Navalny looked shaken, but he tweeted to his supporters, “OK. Don’t get bored here without me. And most important — don’t dawdle.”
Thursday’s session was attended by a pack of supporters and television crews, and it was live-streamed on a news Web site. Navalny, smiling and relaxed and sending out the occasional tweet, had left Moscow by overnight train Wednesday. Among those present in the courtroom were his wife, his father and the longtime opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
After Navalny was led out of the courtroom, his wife, Yulia, addressed supporters and journalists outside the courthouse, striking a defiant tone.
“If someone hopes that his investigation will stop, it won’t,” she said. “The anti-corruption foundation will continue its work, and we really hope for your support. The main thing we can do now is to work and show our solidarity with Pyotr and Alexei. I do believe everything will be good. We will win. And, please, believe that everything will be great.”
Navalny was charged with theft from a deal he arranged in 2009, when he was an assistant to the governor in Kirov — he found a middleman to buy timber from a struggling logging company. Because the middleman made a profit on the timber, the prosecution charged that Navalny had effectively deprived the lumber company of nearly $500,000, by getting it to agree to sell below market value.
Late Tuesday, Navalny posted his latest exposé— a story about Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the government-owned Russian Railways. Navalny alleged that Yakunin has funneled millions of dollars of public money into companies run by his wife and sons, many of them based offshore.
A photo of Navalny giving his wife a tender and stoic hug before their separation will go down in history, writer Boris Akunin tweeted.
By Will Englund and Kathy Lally, Washington Post