Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, left, is escorted to prison… (Valentina Svistunova /…)
MOSCOW — Alexei Navalny, one of Russia's most popular and charismatic opposition leaders, was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison in a high-profile embezzlement trial that he maintained was politically motivated.
Navalny was convicted in a district court in the regional capital of Kirov of embezzling about $530,000 from a local company that has since gone bankrupt.
"The court of the city of Kirov established that Navalny organized the committing of the crime, managed the execution of embezzlement of someone else's property entrusted to the guilty party in especially high volume," Judge Sergei Blinov read in handing down the sentence. "Assertions that Navalny is prosecuted for political motives are far-fetched."
PHOTOS: Russians protest Navalny convictions
Navalny's codefendant, Pyotr Ofitserov, also was found guilty, and sentenced to four years. Both men were fined $15,000 each.
"OK, don't miss me here," Navalny managed to post to his Twitter account in his last moments of freedom. "And the main thing is: Don't be lazy, as the toad will not push itself of its own accord off the oil pipe."
The conviction triggered protests by several thousand people who filled two downtown thoroughfares near the Kremlin, waving portraits of Navalny and demanding that the opposition leader be freed. They were confronted by riot police who tried to restrain the crowds and keep them on the sidewalks. About 60 people were detained.
"I came here to express support for Navalny, who fell victim to biased Russian justice tightly controlled by [President Vladimir] Putin," Anna Frakhman, a 21-year-old graduate chemistry student told The Times. "My friends and I decided to stay here all through the night in protest against the Kremlin's repressions."
The White House on Thursday complained that Navalny's conviction was "politically motivated" and part of a "disturbing trend of government actions aimed at suppressing dissent and civil society in Russia."
"The numerous procedural shortcomings in this case also reinforce our broader concerns about rule of law in Russia," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
Navalny, 36, a lawyer, political activist and blogger, registered this week as a candidate in the Moscow mayoral election to be held in September. The conviction, if not overruled, disqualifies him from that race and any future election.
One of the most outspoken critics of the Kremlin, Navalny described the ruling United Russia as a "party of swindlers and thieves," a label that became a popular slogan. He gained notice a few years ago when he accused the state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom of multimillion-dollar corruption and initiated an official investigation that was later suspended.
Since then, he has criticized a number of influential officials and politicians, including Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Russian Investigative Committee, and Vladimir Pekhtin, first deputy chief of United Russia's parliament faction, accusing them of owning undeclared real estate abroad. Pekhtin was forced to quit his parliament job after a scandal over accusations that he had a lavish apartment in Miami.
Navalny's embezzlement case began in 2010 and was soon dropped. It was reportedly relaunched on Bastrykin's orders after Navalny accused the powerful investigative official of owning an undeclared apartment in the Czech Republic.
His conviction, government critics said, makes him the second-most famous political prisoner in post-Soviet Russia after Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon and Putin critic who was arrested in 2003 and convicted in 2005 of fraud and tax evasion and in 2010 of stealing oil.
PHOTOS: Russians protest Navalny convictions
Khodorkovsky is serving a term in a corrective camp in the Russian northwest and is expected to go free next year.
"The Kremlin is creating a political martyr out of Navalny, whose popularity will grow dramatically from now on," said Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee rights group and a member of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, a Kremlin advisory body.
Sergei Markov, a Kremlin advisor and staunch Putin supporter, hailed the sentencing and said the public will soon forget Navalny.
"There will be no political consequences and repercussions in regard to the verdict," said Markov, vice rector of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. "Some oligarchic groups in the West spanning from New York to London supported Navalny as a would-be leader of an anti-Putin revolution, a plan that is now doomed to failure."
Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.