KIROV, Russia (AP) — A Russian court Friday freed charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny from custody less than 24 hours after he was convicted of embezzlement, a surprise release he attributed to protests over a five-year prison sentence seen by supporters as a blatantly political attempt to silence a Kremlin foe.
In an unusual move, prosecutors requested that the Moscow mayoral candidate be let go pending appeal so he could participate in the race in the fall. The sudden about-face could reflect possible confusion in the Kremlin about how to handle the case of President Vladimir Putin’s No. 1 enemy.
Several thousand people noisily took over the streets outside the Kremlin after Thursday’s verdict, braving the threat of arrest and heavy fines. The prosecutors’ decision was seen as an attempt to soothe unexpected public anger and lend legitimacy to a vote widely expected to be won by a Kremlin-backed incumbent.
The popular blogger who has exposed high-level corruption and mocked the Kremlin would not immediately say if he would stay in the race, expressing resentment over what he characterized as political manipulation.
After the decision, he emerged from the caged-off defendants’ section of the courtroom. He hugged his wife, and thanked the supporters who had protested his conviction on Manezhnaya Square next to the Kremlin, clapping hands and chanting “Freedom!” and “Putin is a thief!”
Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, he said his release was a result of Thursday’s protests. He claimed his conviction and sentence “had been vetted by the presidential administration … but when people came out on Manezhnaya, they rushed to go back on that decision.”
Judge Ignatiy Embasinov supported the release, saying that Navalny’s incarceration would “prevent him from exercising his rights of being elected,” to cheers from Navalny’s supporters.
The release comes with the condition that Navalny not travel outside Moscow and extends until appeals of his conviction are completed.
Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mikhailova described the decision by the prosecution to act in the defense’s interest as unprecedented.
Outside the court, Navalny was greeted by supporters, one of them offering him blini — Russian pancakes — a sarcastic play on the name of the judge who sentenced him, Sergei Blinov.
Navalny said it’s “impossible to predict” whether Friday’s decision could raise the chances of his acquittal on appeal. He also said he has not yet decided whether to continue his mayoral campaign.
“I’m not some kitten or a puppy that can be thrown out of election, say, ‘you’re not running’ and later say ‘yes, let’s get him back in.’ I will get back to Moscow and we will talk it over with my election headquarters,” he said.
Presentation of the appeal and the decision by the court for the Kirov region took little more than an hour, a sharp contrast to the droning 3 ½-hour verdict reading and sentencing in a lower court the previous day.
That harsh ruling provoked immediate anger. The U.S. and EU both criticized the ruling within hours, arguing that the case appeared to be politically motivated.
The unsanctioned protest in Moscow looked small compared to the massive anti-Putin demonstrations that attracted more than 100,000 in the fall of 2011 and the beginning of the following year. But unlike those protests, which were allowed by the authorities, the participants in Thursday’s rally braved the threat of heavy fines and prison sentences.
The protest rally briefly blocked traffic on a busy Moscow street, as demonstrators shouted “This city is ours!” More than 200 people were briefly detained, and about a half of them are expected to face fines.
More than 50 were also briefly detained in St. Petersburg and smaller rallies were held in several other Russian cities Thursday
Navalny rose to prominence among the opposition during a series of massive protests in Moscow against Putin’s re-election to a third presidential term in March 2012.
He first earned notice by blogging about his investigations into corruption at state-owned companies where he owned shares, reaching hundreds of thousands of people. He and his team of lawyers and activists have plumbed property registers abroad to identify top officials and lawmakers who own undeclared foreign assets and hold foreign citizenship.
Navalny’s blog quickly became an Internet sensation not only because of his exposures but because of its engaging illustrations, funny images and witty catchphrases. It was Navalny who first called the dominant United Russia party “the party of crooks and thieves,” a phrase that still dogs Kremlin loyalists.
The opposition leader’s investigations targeted a wide circle of Putin loyalists — from members of Parliament to state bankers — threatening to discredit the system of governance he has built.
Sentencing Navalny is the latest move in a multipronged crackdown on dissent that followed Putin’s inauguration, including arrests of opposition activists and repressive legislation that sharply increased fines for participants in unsanctioned protests and imposed tough new restrictions on non-government organizations.
The charges against Navalny dated back a few years when he worked as an unpaid adviser to the provincial governor in Kirov, 760 kilometers (470 miles) east of Moscow. Prosecutors said he was part of a group that embezzled 16 million rubles’ ($500,000) worth of timber from state-owned company Kirovles.
The defense said co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov’s company bought the timber from Kirovles for 14 million rubles and sold it for 16 million rubles in a regular commercial deal. Navalny’s lawyers presented invoices proving the transactions.
None of the managers at Kirovles who appeared in court, except for former Kirovles Director Vyacheslav Opalev, testified that Navalny defrauded the company.
Navalny insists Opalev framed him out of revenge: Navalny had recommended that Opalev be fired and that officials investigate potential corruption in his company.
Opalev got a suspended sentence in an expedited trial in December after pleading guilty to conspiring with Navalny.
Associated Press writers Jim Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.