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Russia Widely Criticized Over Sentence of Opposition Leader

Activists hold leaflets reading 'In Support of Navalny' with a photo of opposition leader Alexei Navalny who was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison, in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 18, 2013.
A Russian court has sentenced opposition leader Alexei Navalny to five years in prison for embezzlement, in a ruling that has sparked widespread condemnation.

Navalny was convicted Thursday of embezzling $500,000 worth of timber from a state-owned company, while working as an adviser to a provincial governor in 2009. His co-defendant, Pyotr Ofitserov, was sentenced to four years in prison.

The White House said it was "deeply disappointed" by the ruling, which it called "the latest example of a disturbing trend aimed at suppressing dissent in civil society in Russia."

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was concerned about Navalny's conviction and sentence, saying the charges had not been substantiated during the trial.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague called on Russia to "to respect fully the principles of justice and ensure that the rule of law is applied in a non-discriminatory and proportionate way."

The 37-year-old opposition leader, who has exposed alleged government corruption, says the charges are politically motivated and intended to silence him.

His lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, said Thursday's verdict was a re-write of the prosecution's statement.

"The first thing is that the verdict was copied from the prosecution statement - word for word in some places," Mikhailova said. "I believe the court did not add anything to [the] prosecution argumentation, so everything created in the depths of the Investigative Committee was voiced today by the court."

In a Twitter message posted from court, Navalny urged his supporters to continue his campaign, calling on them not to get bored or idle.

Navalny's wife, Yulia, said his anti-corruption fund will continue its work despite the outcome of the case.

"As much as it was possible to be ready for this, Alexei was ready. I, and all our family, support him, have supported him and will support him in the future," she said. "If anybody hopes that Alexei's investigations will stop, then this is not true. The Fund to Fight Corruption will work as before."

Navalny was immediately detained following the verdict, but in a surprise move prosecutors later asked that he be allowed to remain free pending his appeal.

Navalny had recently registered to run in Moscow's September mayoral race, but his chief campaign official said he would pull out. Under Russian law, he is no longer eligible to run for any office, including the 2018 presidential election, which he also planned to contest.

Earlier this year, Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, researched the rulings of Judge Sergey Blinov, who heard Navalny's case. All his verdicts were "guilty" in 130 rulings in an 18-month period.

Last year, Navalny angered Russian President Vladimir Putin by leading mass street demonstrations in Russia's capital.

He also helped organize mass protests starting in 2011 against alleged electoral fraud and Putin's return to the presidency.