RUSSIAN opposition leader Alexei Navalny was handed a five-year jail term for embezzlement, prompting supporters to claim he is a victim of president Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial rule.
Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who led the biggest protests against Mr Putin since he took power in 2000, hugged his wife Yulia and his mother, shook his father’s hand and then passed them his watch before being led him off in handcuffs.
“Shame! Disgrace!” protesters chanted outside the court in Kirov, 550 miles north-east of Moscow. Some supporters wept and others could barely hide their shock and anger.
The United States and European Union expressed concern over the conviction, saying it raised questions about the rule of law in Russia and Mr Putin’s treatment of opponents. The Navalny case has brought comparisons with the “show trials” under Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
In a last message from court, Navalny, 37, referred to Mr Putin as a “toad” who abused Russia’s vast oil revenues to stay in power, and urged his supporters to press on with his campaign.
“OK, don’t miss me. More important – don’t be idle,” he wrote on Twitter. The opposition said they planned protests.
Prosecutors had asked the court to jail Navalny for six years for organising a scheme to steal at least 16 million roubles (£325,000) from a timber firm when he was advising the Kirov regional governor in 2009.
The 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 planned. Some analysts had expected the court to hand down a suspended sentence, to keep Navalny out of prison and politics too.
“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 while reading the verdict, which took about three-and-a-half hours. Pyotr Ofitserov, Navalny’s co-defendant, was sentenced to four years.
Navalny, a powerful orator who has accused the authorities of being “swindlers and thieves”, stood in silence with a puzzled expression as he listened to the verdict. He has ten days to appeal, and his lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, said he would.
The head of his campaign staff, Leonid Volkov, said Navalny had told him he would withdraw from the Moscow race if jailed, and would make a statement today. There is no sense in taking part in it,” he said.
Navalny had said the charge against him was politically motivated and that the verdict was ordered by Mr Putin. He denied guilt and pointed out that an initial investigation, over accusations that he had pressured a state forestry company to agree to a disadvantageous deal with a middleman firm, had been closed for lack of evidence.
Since Mr Putin returned to the presidency after four years as prime minister, women from the punk band Pussy Riot have been jailed for a protest against him in Moscow’s main cathedral, and 12 activists have gone on trial over violence at a protest on the eve of his inauguration in May last year.
Another protest leader, Sergei Udaltsov, is under house arrest.
The Kremlin denies Mr Putin uses the courts for political ends, and the judge rejected Navalny’s claim of political motivation.
Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was in court, said. “With this ruling, Putin has told the whole world he is a dictator who sends his political opponents to prison.”