Russians Protest Sentencing For Anti-Corruption Activist

A Russian judge delivered an unexpectedly harsh sentence on an anti-corruption campaigner who led the biggest protests against President Vladimir Putin since he took power in 2000. Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in jail for theft. Protesters chanted "Shame! Disgrace!" outside the court in Kirov.

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A court in Russia has convicted one of the country's most prominent opposition leaders of embezzlement. Alexei Navalny faces a sentence of five years in prison. He says the case was trumped up to derail his political career. Navalny was instrumental in organizing mass protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin. And more recently, he has been running for mayor of Moscow.

NPR's Corey Flintoff sent this story from the Russian capital.

CORY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Judge Sergei Blinov delivered his verdict in a nearly three-hour session, during which he summarized the arguments in a case that has drawn widespread condemnation. At the end of it, Navalny was led away in handcuffs.

A few dozen protestors demanded his freedom outside the courthouse in Kirov, a city over 500 miles northeast of Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

FLINTOFF: Navalny is a 37-year-old lawyer who made his name by using his blog to expose corruption among high Russian officials. He's credited with first calling the ruling United Russia Party the party of crooks and thieves, a label that became a catchphrase for the opposition.

Russia's powerful Investigative Committee has tried to thrust the label back in Navalny's face, opening three different cases against him. In the current case, prosecutors accused him and an associate of stealing nearly a half million dollars from a state-owned timber company. The judge refused to allow Navalny's lawyers to question the chief prosecution witness and denied requests to call 13 witnesses for the defense.

Alexei Mukhin is director of the Center for Political Information, a Moscow think tank. He says he doesn't believe this trial was the political witch-hunt that Navalny says it was.

ALEXEI MUKHIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: But he also doesn't think the prosecution proved its case.

Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says the case was flimsy and that it was political.

MARIA LIPMAN: Navalny is the man who's come closest to becoming a political figure in Russia, where public politics has been under very tight constraints, hence the attack against him.

FLINTOFF: Lipman says that President Putin and the powerful figures around him have shown again that they're willing to use law enforcement and the courts as political instruments.

In a sign that the authorities may be wary of public anger, the country's chief prosecutor later took the unusual step of asking that Navalny be allowed to remain free pending his appeal. That could allow him to continue his bid for mayor of Moscow, a long-shot effort that could help boost his name recognition and build a political organization.

Immediately after the verdict, Navalny's campaign manager said that he and Navalny had agreed in advance that if the candidate were sentenced to prison, they would not take part in the election.

Police in Moscow sought to preempt an unauthorized protest against Navalny's sentence that opposition members had tried to organize just outside the Kremlin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The authorities closed Red Square and the surrounding area, driving out protestors, journalists and some bewildered tourists. Some protestors responded with an old tactic that's popular in the repressive neighbor country of Belarus. Instead of waving signs or chanting slogans - actions that might get them arrested - they clapped.

As the evening wore on, the crowds grew well into the thousands, lining the streets that flow toward the Kremlin. But so far, the situation has remained fairly calm.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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