Russia jails opposition leader

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny will spend the next five years behind bars for theft.

Russia's top opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison in Kirov on 18 July 2013. Picture: AFP

KIROV - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in jail for theft on Thursday, an unexpectedly tough punishment which supporters said proved President Vladimir Putin was a dictator ruling by repression.

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who led the biggest protests against Putin since he took power in 2000, hugged his wife Yulia and his mother, shook his father's hand and then passed them his watch before being led him away in handcuffs.

"Shame! Disgrace!" protesters chanted outside the court in Kirov, about 900km northeast of Moscow. Some of his supporters burst into tears and other opposition activists could barely hide their shock and anger.

The United States and European Union expressed concern over the conviction, saying it raised questions about the rule of law in Russia and Putin's treatment of opponents. Russian shares fell on concerns the ruling could provoke social unrest.

In a last message from court, Navalny, 37, referred to Putin as a toad who abuses Russia's vast oil revenues to stay in power and made clear he expected his supporters to press his campaign.

"Okay, don't miss me. More important - don't be idle," he wrote on Twitter. The opposition said they planned a series of protests, starting later on Thursday in Moscow where police were out in force.

State prosecutors had asked the court to jail Navalny for six years on charges of organising a scheme to steal at least $494,400 from a local timber firm when he was advising the Kirov region governor in 2009.

But even a five-year sentence means he will not be able to run in the next presidential election in 2018 or for Moscow mayor in September as he had planned. Some political analysts had expected the court to hand down a suspended sentence to avoid prison time but still rule out any political challenge.

"The court, having examined the case, has established that Navalny organised a crime and ... the theft of property on a particularly large scale," Judge Sergei Blinov said, reading rapidly and without emotion. He hardly looked up while reading the verdict, which took about three and a half hours.

Pyotr Ofitserov, Navalny's co-defendant, was convicted as an accomplice and sentenced to four years in prison.

Navalny, a powerful orator who has accused the authorities of being "swindlers and thieves", stood silent with a puzzled expression as he listened to the verdict.

"DICTATOR"

Navalny says the charge against him was politically motivated and that the verdict would be dictated by Putin.

The Kremlin denies that Putin uses the courts for political ends. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, did not immediately answer calls after the sentence was pronounced.

Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who attended the hearing, said he was "shocked".

"With today's ruling, Putin has told the whole world he is a dictator who sends his political opponents to prison," Nemtsov told Reuters.

Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a longtime Putin ally, also saw the Kremlin's hand in the tough verdict.

"Navalny's sentence looks less like punishment than an attempt to isolate him from society and the electoral process," he wrote on Twitter.

The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said on Twitter: "We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of @Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial."

A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the charges "have not been substantiated during the trial" and its outcome "raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia".

He said the EU hoped the sentences would be reconsidered on appeal.

ECHOES OF STALIN

Navalny is the most prominent opposition leader to be prosecuted in Russia since Soviet times and his trial has led to comparisons with the political "show trials" under Josef Stalin.

"For Russia, there is nothing unusual about convicting political opponents on criminal charges," wrote former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was jailed in 2005 on tax evasion and fraud charges after he fell out with Putin.

Khodorkovsky's $40 billion company Yukos was then carved up and sold off, mainly into state hands. He was convicted of theft and money-laundering in a second trial in 2010.

In a statement from prison, Khodorkovsky said Navalny's conviction was "predictable and unavoidable" and suggested the Kremlin was following in Stalin's footsteps.

Before a planned protest in a square near the Kremlin, riot police trucks were parked nearby. In one subway car heading into central Moscow, nine officers with batons were heading downtown.

In Kirov, police detained at least two Navalny supporters protesting outside the pre-trial detention centre, a series of white-washed huts, where he was taken after the sentencing.

Navalny's wife said Putin would not succeed in stifling her husband's exposure of high-level corruption or the protests.

"If anybody hopes that Alexei's investigations will end, that is not the case," Yulia Navalnaya said outside the court.

The opposition accuses Putin of launching a crackdown to stifle dissent and crushing the protests by intimidation.

"This is a scare tactic to frighten the entire opposition and show that if you openly and firmly oppose the authorities, you will be jailed on some fabricated, falsified charge," opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov said.