KIROV, Russia — Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was convicted of embezzlement today and sentenced to five years in prison, a harsh ruling his supporters called an obvious attempt to shut down a top foe of President Vladimir Putin and intimidate other opposition activists.
Navalny, who rose to fame as an anti-corruption blogger before leading unprecedented protests that revealed the depths of anger against the Kremlin, was found guilty of heading a group that embezzled $500,000 worth of timber from a state-owned company in 2009.
Backers say he is innocent, calling the trial unfair and the evidence against him shoddy. The U.S. and EU both criticized the ruling within hours, arguing that the case appeared to be politically motivated.
Navalny had expected the ruling and protests were planned outside the Kremlin even before it was handed down, setting up a potential confrontation with police, who routinely crack down harshly on unsanctioned rallies.
In court, the 37-year-old lawyer played with his smartphone for much of the nearly 3 1/2-hour verdict reading. A post on his Twitter account after the sentence was announced appeared to encourage supporters to continue his work: “Oh, well. Don’t get bored without me. And, importantly, don’t be idle.”
Navalny handed the phone and his watch to his wife, Yulia, before bailiffs took custody of him and a co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov, who was given a four-year sentence.
A leading face of the opposition, Navalny was a top leader of the wave of massive protest rallies that broke out in late 2011 after a national parliamentary election scarred by allegations of widespread fraud.
He first called the dominant United Russia party “the party of crooks and thieves,” a phrase that became a rallying cry for the nascent opposition to Putin. But the ruling comes as the opposition suffers under a wave of Kremlin attempts to snuff it out.