Putin critic avoids prison term, vows defiance
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The regional court changed a verdict imposed on prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday 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 and pledged to continue his political activities. He vowed to appeal the latest ruling in hopes of winning a full acquittal.
The decision left his conviction in place, blocking him from running for office in the future.
“This doesn't cancel political struggle,” he said to reporters on the steps of the regional courthouse in Kirov. “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 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 percent of the vote to Kremlin loyalist and Moscow acting administrator Sergei Sobyanin, who barely overcame the 50 percent 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.
“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 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.