Alexey Navalny, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponents, was released while he appeals his five-year prison sentence, allowing him to campaign for Moscow mayor.
Navalny, 37, was set free today under a travel ban by the Kirov regional court at the unexpected request of the prosecutors. He urged his supporters to help his campaign to challenge Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin in the Sept. 8 election.
“Even if it’s all temporary, let’s use the time to give the swindlers a beating,” Navalny said on his Twitter account.
Thousands of people in central Moscow protested Navalny’s conviction, which also sparked condemnation by the U.S. and Europe, shouting “Putin -- thief” and “Freedom.” About 200 people were detained by the police, according to Interfax. Navalny was handed the five-year sentence yesterday for embezzlement by a judge in Kirov, 900 kilometers (560 miles) northeast of Moscow.
“This is an extremely rare case in my 60 years of legal practice,” Genrikh Padva, a Russian lawyer who advised imprisoned former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said by phone, referring to the prosecutors’ decision to seek Navalny’s release pending appeal in Kirov’s regional court.
Navalny is scheduled to arrive in Moscow by train tomorrow morning and meet with supporters, his campaign manager Leonid Volkov said on his Twitter account. The opposition leader had said he’d withdraw from the race if he remained in prison.
The Micex Index rose as much as 0.5 percent after the announcement and closed up 0.4 percent at 1,421.67 in Moscow. The benchmark gauge slumped as much as 1.6 percent yesterday after the sentence.
A lawyer and anti-corruption activist who helped mobilize tens of thousands of anti-Putin protesters in rallies in 2011 and last year, Navalny had vowed to contest the next presidential election in 2018 and put Putin and his billionaire allies in jail if he won. His conviction, if upheld, would preclude him from ever holding public office.
Putin, 60, has hardened his response against critics since winning a new six-year presidential term last year. Some protesters have been imprisoned while economist Sergei Guriev and former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, critics fearing prosecution, fled Russia this year.
While the Russian leader is aware of Navalny’s conviction, “this issue is not for the president, this issue is for the judicial system and prosecutors,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters today. Insulting the head of state is “unacceptable,” Peskov said, adding that the decision of the court “must be respected.”
After appointing Sobyanin as Moscow mayor, Putin backed his move to hold a snap election, allowing the city’s leader to capitalize on popular support. The Sept. 8 vote will be the first direct ballot for a mayor in the capital for 10 years.
Showing no fear of the contender, Sobyanin asked United Russia, which Navalny labeled as “a party of thieves and swindlers” to collect the signatures of municipal deputies, helping the opposition leader to register as a candidate. Navalny accepted 49 signatures sponsored by Sobyanin and collected the remaining 110 himself, according to the opposition candidate’s LiveJournal blog. He submitted documents for registration on July 10.
Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets, said he won’t challenge Sobyanin for the leadership of Europe’s largest city in September because the authorities scuppered his party’s prospects by banning candidates with foreign assets. He vowed it would run in a 2014 vote for the city legislature instead.
Sobyanin would win 34 percent of the vote, according to a survey of 1,000 Muscovites conducted July 4-8 by the independent Levada center. Navalny would be second with 4 percent, according to the poll, which had a 4.8 percentage point margin of error. Forty-two percent said they haven’t decided yet whom to vote for.