MOSCOW— A Kirov-based court on Thursday found opposition leader Alexei Navalny guilty of embezzlement and sentenced him to five years in prison.
Russian judge Sergey Blinov convicted the country's leading opposition figure, the country’s first dissident to use the Internet to attain a wide following, of stealing 10,000 tons of timber, estimated at $500,000, from a state company while working as an adviser to a provincial governor in 2009.
Navalny has called the charges politically motivated and said they are intended to silence him.
The sentence prevents Navalny, 37, from running in Moscow's September mayoral race, for which he recently registered, and from running for president in 2018. Under a new law, someone convicted of a serious crime, such as major theft, is barred for life from seeking office.
The charismatic anti-corruption crusader became Russia’s most popular Internet blogger, often drawing more than one-million hits. His site prompted several resignations from Russia’s Duma and saddled the ruling United Russia party with the label “the party of crooks and thieves."
His campaign was so damaging that Internet searches for the party now call up references to "crooks and thieves." Navalny’s campaign prompted the Kremlin to tighten slander laws and to form the Russian People’s Front.
Today few observers were convinced that Navalny had committed theft. Konstantin von Eggert, editor-in-chief of the privately held Kommersant FM radio, explained the Kremlin’s strategy as meaning "authorities think that he is really dangerous."
"It also means that his political career starts in earnest this day. Because, in Russia, jail is the ultimate certificate of authenticity for a politician," von Eggert said.
A friend of President Vladmir Putin and a former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, tweeted, "The verdict for Navalny looks not so much like punishment as it looks directed at isolating him from public life and the electoral process."
Vladimir Ryzhkov and other Russian dissidents noted the jail sentence was imposed on Navalny just as Putin congratulated South Africa’s Nelson Mandela on his 95th birthday. Ryzkhov said the irony was not lost on many Internet savvy Russians.
Russia’s state television buried the Navalny verdict; news programs generally reported his conviction after lavish coverage of the closing concert and fireworks of a sporting event, and after coverage of the president observing Russia’s largest military maneuvers since the end of the Cold War.
"It will not be possible not to mention the trial in the Internet age," said von Eggert. "But mentioning it as number three in the pecking order of news, and presenting it as [a] common criminal case is aimed to minimize the blowback from the trial and to present Navalny just as a common criminal."
Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire who came in second in Moscow in last year’s presidential election, wrote after the verdict: "Navalny's sentence is a direct blow against the interests of small and mid-sized businesses, the basis of any developed society. I wonder how many young talented businessmen and lawyers are already mentally packing their bags at this very moment."
In Moscow, Navalny supporters announced they are converting his campaign for mayor into a campaign to boycott the September election.
Earlier this year, opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta researched rulings of Blinov, who heard Navalny's case. All Blinov's verdicts were "guilty" in 130 rulings in an 18-month time period.
Last year, Navalny, who had said he wants to be Russia's next president and jail Putin and his associates, angered the current president by leading mass street demonstrations in the capital.
He also helped organize mass protests starting in 2011 against alleged electoral fraud and Putin's return to the presidency.
American and European observers condemned the conviction and sentencing.
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."
Immediately after the judge strode from the courtroom, Navalny embraced his wife Yulia and was immediately taken to jail.