Russia was braced for fresh protests Thursday after
a court sentenced opposition leader Alexei Navalny to five years in
prison on corruption charges.
Navalny was handcuffed by court marshals immediately after the judge handed down the sentence.
In a last Twitter message before being led off, he told his supporters not to sit idle.
"The toad will not take itself off the oil pipeline," he wrote, alluding to a Russian expression that associates toads with greed and which he has used in the past to refer to the government.
Navalny's supporters called for a protest to take place in the evening outside the Kremlin in Moscow.
Thursday's ruling ends a highly controversial trial which most western observers say is meant to squash the ardent critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Navalny has denied the charges and has called the trial politically motivated. The anti-corruption activist turned politician has said that he wants to run for president.
The sentence was just one year below the six years demanded by prosecutors. Navalny's lawyers immediately announced that they will appeal.
The court hearing in Kirov had began with a guilty verdict, in which judge Sergei Blinov found that Navalny stole 500,000 dollars worth of timber from a state enterprise while serving as a regional government adviser in the city 800 kilometres east of Moscow.
Blinov argued that witnesses' statements had proven the defendant's guilt. "Navalny is the organiser of these crimes," he said.
Navalny's defence had argued that none of the witnesses who testified in the trial had offered any evidence of the charges.
The judge also rejected as "baseless" Navalny's accusation that the trial was political.
Thursday's hearing consisted mostly of a three-and-a-half-hour monologue, in which Blinov read out the trial's entire procedures. He even included email exchanges and wiretapped phone conversations between Navalny and his co-defendant, Pyotr Ofitserov.
Ofitserov, who was Navalny's business partner at the time, was sentenced to four years in prison and also arrested in court. Both Ofitserov and Navalny were also fined 500,000 rubles (15,000 dollars).
The verdict comes only one day after Navalny was confirmed a candidate in Moscow's mayoral elections. But his campaign headquarters said after the verdict that Navalny was pulling out and called for a boycott of the elections.
The sentence caused dismay among many Russian liberals, because many had hoped to the end that Navalny would get away with a suspended sentence. Hopes were also raised by Moscow Mayor and Putin confidante Sergei Sobyanin, who had said that he thought nothing would hinder Navalny in participating in the mayoral vote.
The ruling also triggered a fresh wave of western criticism against the Kremlin.
"We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial," US Ambassador Michael McFaul wrote on Twitter.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the sentencing "raises serious questions" about the rule of law in Russia and should be "reconsidered" on appeal.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the sentence "highlighted once again the concerns felt by many about the selective application of the rule of law in Russia".
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