Prominent Russian opposition leaders and officials of the United States and European Union have condemned the verdict against Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg as a disturbing and politically motivated decision intended to silence the main critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Earlier Tuesday, a Russian court found Navalny guilty of defrauding a French cosmetics company of at least $500,000. The 38-year-old lawyer and blogger received a three-and-a-half-year suspended prison sentence, while his brother Oleg received the same sentence, but was sent to jail.
In an interview with the Voice of America Russian Service, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, presently co-chair of the opposition party RPR-Parnas, said he viewed the sentences against the Navalny brothers as "a cynical reprisal against political opponents."
"We all understand that this case was fabricated; on such grounds, any entrepreneur in Russia could be put in prison," he said. "Moreover, in this case, a suspended sentence for Alexei is a convenient method used by the authorities to neutralize a political opponent because now, on top of everything else, with an absolutely innocent brother behind bars, Navalny will be forced to exercise self-restraint in his activities.”
Changes seen for Russia
However, Kasyanov predicted that the Navalny case, along with other factors, will soon lead to changes in Russia.
"I think that this event, along with the general increase of discontent in the country because of the economy, will be a contributing factor in that we, in 2015, can expect to see some changes in Russia," he added. "Citizens will begin to view things differently and, for opposition activists, today’s verdict only adds to their determination and enthusiasm.”
Kasyanov’s fellow opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister, puts the blame for the verdict squarely on Putin.
“The Navalny sentence was dictated by Putin,” Nemtsov said, adding that the absence of a judicial system will lead to more capital flight and a worsening of the investment climate, which will make it increasingly difficult to do business in Russia.
"The verdict is a blow to Russia's reputation as a whole, [a reputation] which is already faring poorly," he said. "The blow is very powerful, because what happened today demonstrates that there is no judiciary in Russia — as an institution, it does not exist.”
John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, appeared to agree with that view, saying the verdict clearly shows that Putin won't tolerate citizens “who can effectively oppose the autocratic and kleptocratic policy of the Kremlin.”
“When Michael Khodorkovsky in Putin’s eyes was becoming a credible political opponent, he was arrested on trumped charges. Now, this is happening with Navalny. In fact, Navalny has been the most dynamic person in Russia who has opposed the policies of Kremlin,” Herbst said.
Herbst views Oleg's sentence as reminiscent of the Soviet era, when the government would pressure political opponents by arresting their family members.
“Mr. Putin was a member of the KGB and he retains the characteristics of a KGB operative," the former U.S. ambassador said.
US, EU reaction
Speaking in Washington, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the action against the Navalny brothers was further evidence of increased restrictions on various segments of Russian society. The Russian people, he said, deserve a government that supports the free exchange of ideas.
"The decision is a disturbing development in our view, and it appears to be designed to further punish and deter political activism," Rathke said. "This appears to be another example of the Russian government's growing crackdown on independent voices, and we also continue to be concerned about increasing restrictions on independent media, civil society, minority groups, and the political opposition. We believe that the Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution."
The European Union also condemned the brothers' conviction, calling the verdict “politically motivated.” The EU called for restraint during any protests against the verdict.
Hundreds of Navalny's supporters protested near the Kremlin Tuesday night demanding that the opposition leader and his brother be set free.
Police, out in full force, detained Navalny as he tried to join the rally in violation of his house arrest.
Police also arrested several dozen protesters. The rally was generally peaceful as seen on live TV.
VOA Russian Service contributed to this report.