Russian Opposition Leader Gets Five Years; Gorbachev Denounces Verdict

by Will Allen

Alexei Navalny, the 37-year-old attorney and opposition activist once described by the Wall Street Journal as “the man Vladimir Putin fears most,” has been convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison. The Washington Post reports that a court in Kirov handed down the sentence this morning, disappointing some observers who had hoped for a suspended sentence. Navalny’s former business associate, Pyotr Ofitserov, was also found guilty and sentenced to four years.

The imprisonment of Navalny, who is renowned for leading street protests against Russian president Vladimir Putin and exposing government corruption on his LiveJournal blog, deprives the opposition of one of its most spirited and telegenic leaders after a trial widely denounced as a political fiction. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted, “We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of @Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial”; Yevgenia Albats, chief editor of the pro-reform magazine Novoye Vremya (New Times), said on a Moscow radio program, “This shows to what extent the government is afraid of Alexei Navalny.” Former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, in a rare public statement, declared that Navalny’s conviction “unfortunately confirms that we don’t have an independent court system.”

Georgian-born Russian author Grigoriy Chkhartishvili, who writes under the name Boris Akunin, published the above photo of Navalny embracing his wife before being led away to prison. Chkhartishvili posted the photo to Facebook with the caption, “This picture will go down in history. You’ll see.”

Among the most powerful statements on the case came from Ofitserov, Navalny’s co-defendant, who was also photographed bidding his wife farewell. In his closing statement on July 5, Ofitserov explained why he could not abandon Navalny by cooperating with prosecutors:

I value my freedom. I value my reputation. I value all the things I have worked for. But there are things that cannot be done. There are things that — once you do them — cut you off from people forever. I have five children — three sons and two daughters. I know that if I made a deal, they would need me and that would be great. But, you know, when they grow up, they will ask: “Papa, what happened? What did you do?”

UPDATE: Agence France-Presse reports that Alexei Navalny has withdrawn his candidacy for mayor of Moscow, and his campaign manager is asking supporters to boycott the election in protest of Navalny’s imprisonment. Via NewsDaily:

“A decision has been made to boycott the elections,” Leonid Volkov told AFP, saying Navalny has decided to quit the race.

The announcement came just hours after Navalny was sentenced by a Russian court to five years in a penal colony on embezzlement charges.

Volkov said Navalny would formally notify the Moscow Election Commission of his decision shortly.

“It would be strange if we participated in some sort of beating, turned the other cheek,” Volkov said separately in televised remarks, referring to the mayoral race.

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