Russian Opposition Leader Convicted Amid Controversy

A Russian court has convicted one of the country's most prominent opposition leaders of embezzlement. Alexei Navalny faces a sentence of five years in prison in a controversial case that he says was trumped up to derail his political career. Navalny was instrumental in organizing mass protests against the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Russia, one criticism of President Vladimir Putin is that he maintains power in part by targeting his political opponents, and some say that explains what happened in Moscow yesterday. A Russian court has handed down a prison sentence to one of the country's most active opposition figures. He was released this morning pending an appeal.

Alexei Navalny is an anti-corruption blogger who used social media to organize large demonstrations against Putin's government. Navalny's supporters say the charges against him were an effort to derail his political career. Until his conviction yesterday, Navalny was campaigning to be mayor of Moscow. Here's NPR's Moscow correspondent, Corey Flintoff.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Judge Sergei Blinov read a nearly three-hour statement yesterday in which he summarized elements of the trial, pronouncing the verdict, guilty, near the beginning and saving the sentence until near the end.

JUDGE SERGEI BLINOV: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Five years in a minimum security penal colony. An associate who was tried with Navalny got four years. During the trial, Judge Blinov did not allow the defense to cross examine the main prosecution witness and he denied requests to call 13 witnesses in Navalny's defense.

MARIA LIPMAN: I think there is very little doubt that the charges are fabricated and that the case is flimsy, to say the least.

FLINTOFF: That's Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center who says Navalny became a Kremlin target because he was the strongest political challenger to President Putin's power structure. The judge found Navalny and his associate guilty of embezzling nearly a half-million dollars from a state-owned timber company.

A previous version of the same case was dismissed last year by prosecutors who said they found no evidence of wrongdoing. The investigation was reopened after Navalny published embarrassing revelations about the foreign assets of the head of the state investigative committee. Supporters of President Putin see Navalny not as a crusading lawyer, but as a revolutionary political threat.

One of them is Sergei Markov, a former member of parliament and vice rector of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.

SERGEI MARKOV: Alexei Navalny, many years work as a real legal advice how to steal money. He's very professional how to steal money.

FLINTOFF: Markov says that Navalny honed his investigative skills by working for corporate takeover artists, shady businessmen who used evidence of corruption to blackmail corporations for money and contracts. It was only later, Markov says, that Navalny began making his corruption allegations public. Markov also subscribes to a conspiracy theory of some Kremlin supporters that Navalny was chosen by a shadowy group of international financiers to lead a revolution that would topple Vladimir Putin and open up Russia's resources for exploitation by foreigners.

He says the massive protests against Putin were part of a plan to foment a so-called color revolution in Russia like the Rose Revolution in Georgia or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Such attempts, Markov says, will be harshly defeated.

MARKOV: Russia learned the lessons of color revolutions and all attempts of the color revolution in Russia will be stopped.

FLINTOFF: Actually, Navalny has been trying something that could've taken the Russian opposition from street protests to politics. He was running for mayor of Moscow. Navalny's chances were slim against a popular Kremlin-backed opponent, but his conviction did trigger protests in Moscow and other cities. He told reporters that he hasn't decided yet whether to resume his candidacy or lead a boycott of the elections.

A renewed sense of outrage among his supporters could give a boost to either option. Navalny gave a preview of what his campaign will be about in an impassioned closing argument at his trial.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: In his words: I and my colleagues will do everything possible to destroy this feudal regime being established in Russia, to destroy the system of power under which 83 percent of national wealth belongs to a half percent of the population. His supporters are preparing for his return to the capital. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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