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Putin foe freed from prison 1 day into 5-year sentence

| Friday, July 19, 2013, 5:48 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
Russia's top opposition leader Alexei Navalny hugs his wife Yulia in the courtroom in Kirov on July 19, 2013. A Russian court on Friday unexpectedly freed protest leader Alexei Navalny pending his appeal against a five-year sentence on embezzlement charges, after his jailing prompted thousands to take to the streets in protest. The judge in the northern city of Kirov ruled that keeping President Vladimir Putin's top opponent in custody would deprive him of his right to stand in mayoral elections in Moscow on September 8. AFP PHOTO/YEVGENY FELDMANYEVGENY FELDMAN/AFP/Getty Images

KIROV, Russia — A court's abrupt decision Friday to release Russia's most charismatic opposition leader less than a day after handing him a five-year prison sentence appears to reflect confusion in President Vladimir Putin's inner circle about how to deal with its No. 1 foe.

Even more, it makes clear that the Kremlin is far from a monolith. The surprising about-face involving Alexei Navalny highlights an open rift between factions in Putin's government that could be as unsettling for the leadership as any opposition figure, experts say.

In an unusual move, prosecutors themselves had requested that Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and Moscow mayoral candidate, be let go pending appeal just a few hours after he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs following an embezzlement conviction that was widely seen as unfair.

Thousands of Navalny's supporters on Thursday gathered around Moscow's Manezhnaya Square outside the Kremlin for an unsanctioned protest of what they called a politically motivated ruling, chanting “Freedom!” and “Putin is a thief!” in open defiance of the authorities.

Navalny credited the protesters with his release, telling reporters on Friday that his conviction and sentence “had been vetted by the presidential administration ... but when people came out on Manezhnaya, they rushed to go back on that decision.”

Analysts saw Navalny's sudden release as likely reflecting arguments within the Kremlin about how to respond to his popularity. He has earned rock-star status among his urban middle-class supporters, even if he has little influence among everyday Russians.

They considered the move an attempt to lend legitimacy to the Sept. 8 mayoral vote widely expected to be won by a Kremlin-backed incumbent who resigned last month, forcing a snap election that would make challengers scramble to organize their campaigns.

While the leadership of Russia's law-enforcement agencies, referred to as “siloviki,” favor nipping the opposition in the bud, other Putin lieutenants promote a more subtle approach to dissent, said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, an independent think-tank.

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