Opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaks during a massive "Russia without Putin" rally in Moscow to protest against Vladimir Putin's victory in a presidential election on March 5, 2012. (File/UPI/Yuri Gripas) | License Photo
Russia's most well-known anti-corruption campaigner was found guilty of embezzlement Thursday and sentenced to five years in prison.
Some 19 months after leading the largest protest to challenge the Kremlin since the Soviet Union's collapse, Alexei Navalny described the trial as a politically motivated attempt to silence him.
The ruling against Navalny, a 37-year-old activist and blogger, is part of a Kremlin crackdown on an opposition movement that gained the support of tens of thousands of Muscovites following the parliamentary elections in 2011.
Navalny was found guilty of conspiring to embezzle 16 million rubles ($494,000) from a state-controlled timber company in Kirov while serving as an informal adviser there in 2009.
Navalny maintains the allegations are fiction.
"We all understand, including me, that the main point of this process was soap opera-like," Navalny said in his closing statement. "It's to make it so someone on all the federal news channels can continually mention my name as this person who stole the Kirov region's whole forest, this crook, as if that could somehow change what I am writing about those people who are actually crooks, those people who are stealing the government's billions from us."
As the judge read his case and verdict, Navalny took to Twitter. "I have been trying to convince everyone who stands in our row to 'start a wave' like in stadiums. But so far I haven't convinced them," he wrote.
"OK, now don't get bored here without me," Navalny tweeted as he was led out of court. "And more importantly, don't procrastinate. A toad won't throw itself off an oil pipe on its own." The message was a reference to the Russian government's dependence on hydrocarbon funds.
The verdict came one day after Navalny officially registered as a candidate for Moscow's snap mayoral election in September. His spokeswoman, Anna Veduta, said on Twitter that he will withdraw his candidacy as a result of the sentence, though the campaign will continue to fight for his appeal.
Navalny was the most charismatic leader to come out of the 2011 protests, and accused President Vladimir Putin of running a "party of crooks and thieves."
Navalny's conviction comes just one week after a Russian court found dead whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky guilty of perpetrating the fraud he had uncovered. Magnitsky's employer, investment manager William Browder, was also convicted, in absentia.
"Today’s verdict will go down in history as one of the most shameful moments for Russia since the days of Joseph Stalin," Browder said. "This is the first conviction of a dead man in Europe in the last ten centuries."