MOSCOW— A Russian court on Friday released from custody Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a candidate in Moscow’s mayoral election scheduled for September.
The anti-corruption blogger was freed from jail pending an appeal less than 24 hours after being sentenced to five years on embezzlement charges. The court ruled that imprisoning Navalny, a candidate in Moscow’s September mayoral race, would deny him his right to run in the election.
After embracing his wife, Navalny spoke to the press, saying that he will continue to fight for as long as he has his freedom.
Navalny then thanked the thousands of demonstrators that gathered in Moscow, St. Petersburg and throughout Russia in unsanctioned rallies to protest the court’s decision on Thursday that Navalny is guilty of embezzling $500,000 worth of timber from a state-owned company while he was an adviser to a provincial governor.
In Moscow, where police detained as many as 250 protestors, chants of “Navalny” and “Freedom” echoed through the Russian capital.
Ekaterina, a 29-year-old computer programmer, said she came to the protest in Moscow to demand justice in Russia’s courts. She said she does not trust Russia’s mass media and sees clear political motives in Navalny’s conviction.
Also at the Moscow protest was 39-year-old Vasiliy Shabat, who said he sees Navalny as a welcome change to the current Kremlin elite.
“I think Navalny is kind of the first politician of the new wave. He’s very honest and straightforward. He’s very expressive in his style. He speaks in a style that I can understand, and I think many people in this town and in this country can understand,” he said.
Navalny was released on bail shortly after police quelled protests in cities across Russia.
Opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov said the protests, however, did not impact the court’s decision to release the popular Kremlin critic. Ryzhkov claims the Kremlin has other motives. He said the Kremlin needs Navalny’s participation to bring legitimacy to Moscow’s upcoming September 8 mayoral election.
As one of six registered candidates, Navalny trails United Russia candidate and acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin by a huge margin. Recent polls show Sobyanin leading Navalny by at least 30 percent.
Ryzhkov said he believes Sobyanin’s high rating may have prompted Navaly’s release. He said the Kremlin wants to demoralize the opposition by defeating Navalny at the polls.
But despite facing five years in a prison colony, and a conviction - if it stands - that would bar the opposition leader from future public service, many see Alexei Navalny’s release as a small, albeit temporary, victory for Russia’s political opposition.