Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been sentenced to five years in a penal colony on charges of fraud and embezzlement, a ruling his supporters called an attempt to block one of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics from politics.
Navalny, 37, who rose to fame as an anti-corruption whistleblower and staunch opponent of the Kremlin, was found guilty of defrauding 16 million rubles ($500,000) in a timber deal from a regional state-owned company in 2009. He was led away by court bailiffs in Kirov, 900 kilometers northeast of Moscow.
After the verdict but before he was handcuffed and led away, Navalny urged his supporters to continue his struggle against corruption: “Don't all get bored without me. The most important thing is not to sit idle; a toad won’t lift itself off the oil pipe.” (The "toad" was what he called President Vladimir Putin's government in a post on his LiveJournal blog.) That post was retweeted more than 5,000 times in three hours.
Navalny had recently registered his candidacy for the next mayor of Moscow, but his campaign team said that following the verdict he was dropping out of the race.
After the ruling which Navalny had described as politically motivated, several hundred protestors gathered outside Red Square, before police detained some of the demonstrators.
Navalny's ruling has criticized by powers overseas within hours. The United States said it was "deeply disappointed", while the EU said the verdict posed "serious questions" about the state of Russian law.
“We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial,” Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, said on Twitter.
Top EU diplomat Catherine Ashton also said the verdict "raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia."
Other Russian critics of the Kremlin have been vocal following the verdict.
"With today's ruling, Putin has told the whole world he is a dictator who sends his political opponents to prison," opposition politician Boris Nemtsov told Reuters.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who has criticized the rollback of democracy under Putin, said the verdict “left a very bad taste in the mouth.”
“Using the courts to fight political opponents is unacceptable,” Gorbachev said in a statement on his foundation’s website.