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Russia opposition leader gets sentence suspended in fraud case

October 16, 2013|By Sergei L. Loiko
  • Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny talks to media after a hearing Wednesday at the regional court in Kirov, Russia.
Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny… (Maxim Shipenkov / European…)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The regional court in Kirov on Wednesday changed a verdict imposed on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from imprisonment to a suspended sentence.

Navalny, a charismatic blogger and frequent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was sentenced in July by a Kirov district court to five years in prison for an alleged 2009 embezzlement of $530,000 from a timber company. Navalny called the case political persecution.

Navalny, 37, thanked his supporters Wednesday and pledged to continue his political activities. He also vowed to appeal the current ruling, seeking full acquittal.

“This doesn’t cancel political struggle,” he said to reporters on the steps of the courthouse. “We have demonstrated that we can have enough influence on the authorities. We need to continue our work and seek the freeing of those imprisoned for political motives.”

Navalny was campaigning to become mayor of Moscow when he was convicted. He was released during his appeal after a day in jail following street protests in his support and was allowed to remain free and participate in the Sept. 8 election.

Navalny came in second with 27% of the vote to Kremlin loyalist and Moscow acting administrator Sergei Sobyanin, who barely overcame the 50% margin needed to avoid a runoff election. Navalny had hoped to consolidate the protest vote and win in a second round.

Navalny appealed the results, citing numerous violations, but his demand for a recount was turned down by the Moscow Election Commission.

Many observers believe that Navalny's strong showing in the polls contributed to saving him from prison. However, the guilty verdict that remains in force bars him from taking part in future elections.

“The softening of Navalny’s sentence is certainly a significant victory of the opposition forces,” Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights movement, a Moscow-based rights group, said in a telephone interview.

Ponomaryov also expressed hope that Navalny’s sentence would be completely revoked in the course of a large-scale criminal amnesty in the works at the Kremlin and expected by the end of the year.

In the wake of the post-verdict protests, Putin had publicly questioned the severity of the initial verdict.

“It seemed odd to me … that [Navalny] was really handed down five years,” Putin said at a meeting with a group of young pro-Kremlin activists in August.

On Wednesday, the Kremlin said it had done nothing to influence the change of the verdict. “It is a court decision,” Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told RIA Novosti. “We have nothing to do with the verdict.”

Navalny emerged as rabble-rouser in mid-2000s when as a lawyer he challenged the Russian oil giant Gazprom, state-owned oil company Transneft and one of the biggest banks, VTB, accusing them of large-scale corruption. The legal complaints he filed never reached courts.

In November 2010, Navalny delivered an extensive report on Russian corruption to the U.S. government's Helsinki Commission.

The following year, he came up with the term “a party of swindlers and thieves” to describe the ruling United Russia party. The name stuck and contributed to the party's poor showing in December 2011 parliamentary elections, when it failed to get 50% of the vote.

At opposition protest rallies Navalny, a fiery speaker, more than once called Putin a thief. In recent years, he revealed that ruling party senior officials had undeclared property and assets abroad, compelling some of them to quit parliament.

In a most recent expose, Navalny charged that two sons of Putin’s longtime friend, railroad chief Vladimir Yakunin, bought millions of dollars' worth of real estate in Britain and Switzerland, a charge Yakunin denied.

After the ruling Wednesday, Navalny vowed to continue his struggle against the Kremlin.

“Now they will think that if this fake criminal case ended up in a suspended sentence we must be grateful to them and forget about it,” Navalny said to reporters in Kirov, a regional capital about 600 miles northeast of Moscow. “It is not so.”

His former business partner, Pyotr Ofitserov, received a four-year sentence in the same case that also was suspended on Wednesday.

A decision will be announced Thursday on whether $15,000 fines imposed on both men will be lifted.


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