RUSSIAN opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been freed from custody, less than 24 hours after a court in Kirov jailed him for five years for embezzlement.
His release came as a surprise, as Mr Navalny is seen as president Vladimir Putin’s No 1 foe. More surprisingly, it was requested by prosecutors so that he can take part in the Moscow mayoral elections in autumn.
Several thousand people took over the streets outside the Kremlin after Thursday’s verdict, braving the threat of arrest and heavy fines. The prosecutors’ decision was seen as an attempt to soothe public anger and lend legitimacy to a vote widely expected to be won by a Kremlin-backed incumbent.
The popular blogger who has exposed corruption and mocked the Kremlin would not immediately say if he would stay in the race, angered by apparent political manipulation.
After the decision, he emerged from the caged-off defendants’ section of the court, hugged his wife, Yulia, and thanked supporters who protested outside the Kremlin, clapping hands and chanting “Freedom!” and “Putin is a thief!”
He said his release was a direct result of the protests. He claimed his conviction and sentence “had been vetted by the presidential administration … but when people came out on Manezhnaya [a square beside the Kremlin] they rushed to go back on that decision.”
Judge Ignatiy Embasinov supported the release, saying Navalny’s incarceration would “prevent him from exercising his rights of being elected,” to cheers from his supporters.
The release comes with the condition that Navalny stays in Moscow until the appeal process is complete. His lawyer Olga Mikhailova described the decision by the prosecution to act in the defence’s interest as unprecedented.
Outside the court, Navalny was greeted by supporters, one of them offering him blini, a play on the name of the judge who sentenced him, Sergei Blinov.
Navalny said it’s “impossible to predict” whether yesterday’s decision could raise the chances of his acquittal on appeal. He also said he has not yet decided whether to continue his bid to become mayor of Moscow.
“I’m not some kitten or a puppy that can be thrown out of election, say, ‘you’re not running’ and later say ‘yes, let’s get him back in’. I will get back to Moscow and we will talk it over with my election headquarters,” he said.
Presentation of the appeal and the decision by the court took little more than an hour, in contrast to the three-hour reading of the verdict and sentencing in a lower court the day before.
The unsanctioned protest in Moscow looked small compared to the massive anti-Putin demonstrations that attracted more than 100,000 in autumn 2011 and the beginning of 2012. However, those who protested on Thursday faced arrest and prosecution under new laws pushed through by Mr Putin which ban unsanctioned demonstration.
The protest rally briefly blocked traffic on a busy Moscow street. More than 200 were briefly detained, and about a half of them are expected to face fines. More than 50 were also briefly detained in St Petersburg and smaller rallies were held in several other Russian cities.