KIROV, RUSSIA – Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday escaped being sent to prison in a controversial embezzlement case after a court converted his five-year penal colony sentence into a suspended term.
The appeal verdict meant that Navalny walked free although his fraud conviction remains in place. The conviction, which his supporters say was ordered by the Kremlin, disqualifies him from politics.
The three judges hearing the appeal at the regional court in the northern Kirov region said in a verdict they had ruled to “change the verdict for Alexei Navalny into a suspended term.”
The dramatic ruling came after President Vladimir Putin’s most vehement critic made a surprisingly robust showing in a key Moscow election last month.
“It is all absolutely obvious that all the decisions, first on the real sentence and the change now to suspended, are taken definitely not here but personally by Vladimir Putin,” Navalny said after the ruling.
“I have not the faintest idea what is going on in his head, why he changes his decision.”
The suspended sentence still bars Navalny — who has openly declared presidential ambitions — from running for office in the foreseeable future.
“The authorities are trying with all their strength to in any case push me out of the political battle,” he said. “It is absolutely clear they will not manage to push me and my colleagues out from this political fight. We will continue.”
Navalny, who is also facing several other criminal probes, said he would appeal the conviction.
Navalny’s co-accused, Pyotr Ofitserov, who was previously ordered to spend four years in a penal colony, also received a suspended sentence.
Wednesday’s hearing was uncharacteristically swift, with Navalny saying he saw no sense in participating in debates.
Navalny, a charismatic 37-year-old lawyer, won 27 percent in Moscow mayoral polls last month, a surprisingly strong result that put him in second place behind pro-Kremlin incumbent Sergei Sobyanin.
His populist campaign played on anti-migrant moods and weariness with widespread corruption under Putin.
In July, Kirov’s Lenin district court found Navalny and his Ofitserov, a business associate, guilty of embezzlement in a 2009 timber deal. They were immediately arrested.
But in a surprise decision, Kirov’s regional court freed them the next day, arguing they should remain free pending their appeal. The unprecedented move opened the door for Navalny’s Moscow mayoral run.
Navalny rose to political stardom at mass protests in the winter of 2011-2012 against Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term.