(AP) A Russian court on Wednesday suspended a five-year prison sentence for a top opposition leader but upheld his conviction for theft that will prevent him from running in future elections.
Alexei Navalny was convicted on embezzlement charges and sentenced to five years in prison on July 18, but was released the next day in what some considered a ploy to make the Moscow mayoral race, where he was registered as a candidate, look as competitive as possible.
Navalny garnered an unexpected 27 percent of the vote against the Kremlin-backed incumbent. His growing public profile has made it increasingly risky for the Kremlin to put him behind bars.
Regardless of his own inability to hold office, Navalny, a charismatic speaker with a popular blog, could still prove a vital political force in Russia.
He has vowed to wage an active campaign, even if not a candidate himself, in elections for the Moscow city government in September 2014. His run for Moscow mayor attracted thousands of young volunteers in an unprecedented grassroots campaign effort, and that network could prove a key organizing force in the 2014 race.
On Wednesday, a judge in the court in Kirov, 760 kilometers (460 miles) east of Moscow, read out the decision. According to current Russian law, even a suspended sentence would eliminate Navalny from political office for life.
Navalny lambasted the trial, saying the original sentence had been handed down "on instructions from Moscow" and that the "political motivation of this case is absolutely clear."
The charges against Navalny date back a few years to when he worked as an unpaid adviser to the provincial governor in Kirov. Prosecutors said he was part of a group that in 2009 embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from the state-owned company Kirovles. He has denied the charges.
The defense said that a company run by Pyotr Ofitserov Navalny's co-defendant who was also given a suspended sentence of five years as well in the appeal bought the timber for 14 million rubles and sold it for 16 million rubles in a regular commercial deal.
Navalny, who spent much of the court session tweeting, was characteristically sarcastic and upbeat.
After the judge read out the sentence, Navalny told journalists he had no doubts the decision had been made "personally by Vladimir Putin," and said that "the authorities are doing their utmost to pull me out of the political fight."
The sentence eliminates Navalny for running in any elections in the future, according to a 2012 law that bans anyone with a criminal conviction for serious crimes, even if the sentence is suspended, from political office for life.
That law has been controversial in a country where, according to a 2011 survey by the Moscow-based Center for Legal and Economic Studies, one in six business people have faced criminal charges. About 120,000 people are serving prison sentences in Russia for economic crimes.
Last week Russia's highest court ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional, and asked the legislature to amend it so that only those convicted to life sentences would be banned from political office for life.
Those changes, however, would still keep Navalny out of office for the five years of his suspended sentence. He also currently has several other criminal investigations opened against him, laying the groundwork for the Kremlin to put him behind bars in the future if the political necessity arises.
Navalny's lawyers told journalists after the trial that they would continue to fight to have the verdict overturned.
Navalny's rise to prominence started with his blog, where he posted investigations into corrupt state-owned companies accompanied by incisive, witty invectives on prominent Russian officials.
When evidence of massive fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections triggered protests, Navalny a speaker with a knack for catchy slogans became the driving force behind the movement, leading hundreds of thousands through Moscow with chants of "We are the power!"
Mills reported from Moscow.