Russian opposition figure, Alexei Navalny is greeted by his wife, Yulia,… (Dmitry Lovetsky / Associated…)
MOSCOW — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his former business partner, Pyotr Ofitserov, were released from custody Friday, one day after their conviction in a controversial embezzlement case, Interfax news agency reported.
A district court in the regional capital of Kirov had sentenced Navalny and Ofitserov to five years and four years in prison, respectively, and fined them $15,000 each on charges of embezzling $530,000 from a local timber company in 2009.
The Kirov regional court ruled that both men should be released while they appeal the verdict. Navalny was freed on a pledge that he not travel outside Moscow.
PHOTOS: Russians protest Navalny convictions
Upon his release, Navalny thanked his supporters "for making them release me." Thousands protested after the convictions.
"Even if it is temporary, let's use this time to shake up the swindlers," Navalny wrote in his Twitter account. "We took a deep breath and down to work again. ... Agitation, leaflets, everything."
Navalny, a popular blogger, lawyer and officially registered opposition candidate in the Moscow mayoral election set for Sept. 8, never pleaded guilty in the case and declared the charges bogus and the trial politically motivated.
In the last few years, Navalny has been one of the most outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin, publicly calling the Russian leader a thief, and his party, United Russia, a group of swindlers and thieves. The criticism contributed to the ruling party's humiliating 50% showing in parliamentary elections in December. Many experts considered Navalny's conviction a result of Putin's vengeance.
After the verdict and sentencing Thursday, massive protests broke out in a number of major Russian cities. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, thousands of people demanding Navalny's release took to the streets and tried to block traffic. Police intervened and arrested dozens.
The United States and other Western governments expressed concern with what they termed an example of biased, politically motivated justice.
The White House on Thursday said 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.
Under the pressure from protesters at home and concerned governments abroad, the Kremlin had to remedy the situation, said Andrei Piontkovsky, a senior researcher with the System Analysis Institute in Moscow.
"By putting his key opponent in prison yesterday, Putin demonstrated that he is vengeful and not too smart as a politician," Piontkovsky said in an interview. "Today, by initiating Navalny's release, Putin looks like a weak politician in the eyes of the general public consisting largely of his supporters."
Nikolay Svanidze, a popular television journalist and member of the Presidential Council on Civic Society and Human Rights, said the Russian judicial system is essentially an extension of the government and probably was following instructions from the Kremlin.
"The fact that Navalny was ordered to be released the next day can only mean that the Kremlin was taken aback by the quick and uniformly negative reaction of the world political establishment and by a spontaneous and massive response from thousands of young people in Russia who joined protest actions in many cities and towns across the country," Svanidze said.
He said Putin can't afford to be seen to be suppressing civic society on the eve of a visit by President Obama and with the Winter Olympics coming to Sochi in 2014.
"There must be some real infighting between two different factions in the Kremlin over what line to pursue toward Navalny and the opposition in general," Svanidze said. "Or else the Kremlin doesn't have a clue what to do next, and hence the embarrassing convulsions."