(MOSCOW) -- Alexei Navalny, the most prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was convicted of embezzlement Thursday in what he had denounced as a political show trial.
Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison and given a large fine. He and a co-defendant, sentenced to four years, were handcuffed in court and led away.
Navalny can appeal but, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency, he has already withdrawn his candidacy for mayor of Moscow in September’s election.
Unsanctioned protests in response to the verdict are scheduled for Thursday night in towns across the country. More than 7,000 people have already RSVP’d for the one in Moscow.
Navalny, 37, was accused of embezzling half a million dollars of timber in the provincial capital of Kirov, near Moscow. He insisted the charges are fabricated and politically motivated.
Washington considers Navalny’s trial to be politically motivated and expressed disappointment with his conviction.
“We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial,” U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted on Thursday.
The court was packed with journalists awaiting the verdict. The U.S. embassy sent an observer and the U.S. ambassador tweeted Navalny to say he was watching the live feed online.
The judge read the entire verdict at almost a near whisper for three hours. Navalny had to stand and defiantly tweeted throughout the entire proceeding. By the time the judge had finished, police in Moscow had sealed off a square where supporters planned to gather in the evening.
Navalny’s trial was arguably the most prominent against a potential challenger in the Putin era, certainly the most since the trial of former Yukos Oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky a decade ago put Russia’s richest man in jail after he announced plans to enter politics.
That the father of two would be found guilty on Thursday was almost never in doubt. The presiding judge had never found anyone not guilty. Conviction rates nationwide exceed 99 percent. The question was what his sentence would be.
Navalny’s political career is now over before it could really begin. He can never run for office with a criminal record.
Navalny had registered Wednesday as a candidate for Moscow mayor in September’s snap election. The incumbent mayor resigned unexpectedly earlier this year and is running again -- a sign, analysts say, that the Kremlin expects things to get worse.
Navalny was polling way behind, but Moscow was the only major city in Russia to vote less than 50 percent for Putin during last year’s presidential election. His candidacy gave hope to the city’s battered opposition.
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