Putin Foe Navalny Defies Arrest at Rally After Guilty Verdict

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was detained for breaking house arrest to join protests in Moscow as President Vladimir Putin stares down opponents during the country’s worst economic crisis since 2009.

Navalny’s arrest came hours after a court handed him a suspended sentence and condemned his brother to 3 1/2 years in prison on fraud and money-laundering charges. Navalny described the verdict as an act of vengeance by Putin’s administration.

“The fact that they’ve detained me means just one thing, that there will be one less person for them to arrest,” Navalny, who has led the biggest protests against Putin in his 15 years in power, said on his Twitter account after he was held. “They can’t detain all of us.”

Putin is facing dissent at home as plunging oil prices and U.S. and European sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine are driving Russia into recession. The verdict against Navalny and his brother “appears to be politically motivated,” the European Union said in a statement on its website, adding that the charges hadn’t been substantiated during the trial.

Navalny was arrested as he approached the site of the protest in Moscow’s Manezh square, near the Kremlin. Officers dispersed the crowd of about 1,500 people at about 9 p.m. Moscow time. They detained at least 100, Interfax reported, citing the capital’s police service.

Martyr Risk

The decision to give the 38-year-old lawyer a suspended sentence was probably aimed at avoiding his becoming a martyr and sparking major unrest, while putting pressure on him by imprisoning his brother, according to Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based political analyst and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“With the prospect of socio-economic protests, the Kremlin doesn’t want Navalny to become more of a leader,” Lipman said by phone. “The image of a martyr, even if in jail, might give more impetus to such protests.”

Navalny said on his Twitter account that he had been brought home after taking him first to a police precinct and several officers were stationed outside. He remains under house arrest until his sentence is confirmed, according to the court ruling.

“His brother is vulnerable in prison and that is a very hard moral dilemma for Navalny,” Lipman said. “But his conduct today indicates that he won’t bend to pressure.”

Minus 17

Some of the demonstrators, who gathered in freezing temperature of minus 17 Celsius (1.4 Fahrenheit), chanted “freedom” as they were pushed away by cordons of police.

“I came because we must show there’s a certain number of people unhappy with what’s happening in the country,” said Timur Vasyunin, a 30-year-old programmer. ‘I’m disappointed there were so few people. I myself never went to these events before, but now is the time when it’s necessary.’’

Navalny shouted out in the courtroom that the decision to jail his brother was “filthy.” His lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, told TV Rain that the defense considered the verdict unlawful and would appeal. The brothers were also fined 500,000 rubles ($8,700) each.

“This time they’re purposefully destroying, torturing and tormenting the relatives of people who are their political opponents,” Navalny told reporters after the verdict. “I call on everyone to go to the streets until the authorities, who are grabbing and torturing innocent people, are ousted.”

Early Verdict

Judge Elena Korobchenko of Moscow’s Zamoskvoretsky District Court didn’t explain the difference in the sentences for Navalny and his brother, saying the legal reasoning will be given later. They were found guilty of defrauding the Russian branch of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. Both men have denied wrongdoing.

The verdict, originally scheduled for Jan. 15, was moved forward suddenly yesterday to just before Russia’s 11-day winter break. The authorities may have been attempting to thwart protests as many Russians will be on holiday, according to Nikolai Petrov, a scholar at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

The prosecutors, who sought a 10-year sentence for Alexey and eight years for Oleg, will probably appeal the verdict, which they consider lenient, Interfax reported. The opposition leader was handed another suspended term last year in a fraud case involving a timber company in the Kirov region.

The ruble strengthened almost 5 percent to the dollar to 55.5. The Russian currency is the world’s second-worst performer this year after Ukraine’s hryvnia, losing 41 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

About 18,000 signed up on the Facebook Inc. page for the Manezh Square rally. Russian authorities blocked another Facebook page earlier this month promoting a similar event on the original date of the verdict.

The Kremlin won’t comment on the verdict, RIA Novosti reported, citing Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“This is a foul story. It’s not a verdict, it’s retribution,” Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and now opposition leader, said by phone. “This totally discredits the judicial system in a country that has already been discredited.”

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