Russian protest chief Alexei Navalny avoids prison

Brothers Alexei, left, and Oleg Navalny take a selfie in front of the defendants' cage yesterday. Picture: Reuters
Brothers Alexei, left, and Oleg Navalny take a selfie in front of the defendants' cage yesterday. Picture: Reuters
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A RUSSIAN court gave Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny a suspended sentence yesterday for embezzling money, but jailed his brother for three-and-a-half years in a case seen as part of a campaign to stifle dissent.

Navalny led mass protests against President Vladimir Putin three years ago, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow and St Petersburg to protest against corruption in his government and inner circle. Opposition figures say jailing Navalny risked a new wave of protests and so it was decided to punish him by jailing his ­brother instead.

Within hours Navalny was detained for breaking his house arrest as he joined hundreds of his supporters rallying in front of the Kremlin last night. More than 100 were detained as police dispersed the protest and returned him to his home.

The authorities had not given permission for the rally so it was considered illegal.

The Navalny brothers, Alexei and Oleg, were accused of stealing 30 million roubles (around £3.5 million) from two firms ­including an affiliate of the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher between 2008 and 2012.

Tuesday’s ruling will come as a relief for Navalny’s supporters after prosecutors asked that he be imprisoned for ten years.

The Kremlin denies allegations that it uses the courts to persecute opponents.

Officials have taken few steps to investigate ­Navalny’s corruption allegations. He claimed there was mass embezzlement, including in state bank VTB and pipeline monopoly Transneft, run by close allies of Mr Putin.

“Aren’t you ashamed of what you are doing?” Navalny told the court and judge Yelena ­Korobchenko. “Why are you putting him [Oleg] in prison? To punish me even harder?”

Alexei Navalny is serving another suspended five-year jail term for a separate conviction last year, which critics also called a sham.

“The authorities are torturing and destroying relatives of their political opponents. This regime doesn’t deserve to exist. It must be destroyed,” Navalny told ­reporters outside the court.

Russian state television channels were either not covering the sentencing or mentioned it very briefly, while most Russian print media or radio stations had it among their top stories.

Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment and said the president would hear the verdict from media.

Mr Putin’s popularity has soared over the past year after the annexation of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Crimean peninsula and its incursion in east Ukraine, which led to the worst stand-off with the West since the end of the Cold War. This has eroded the popularity of opposition leaders such as Navalny.

However, falling oil prices and western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine have triggered a deep economic crisis, a rouble devaluation and double-digit ­inflation, threatening Mr Putin’s reputation for safeguarding ­Russian prosperity.

Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, one of the most respected Russian economists in the West, said this month Russia was facing a full-fledged crisis which could lead to mass protests next year.

And economist turned opposition figure Sergei Aleksashenko said: “The authorities could have easily put Navalny in jail. But they understand that it would have led to a large wave of protests. So they will torture him through other means.”