A regional Russian court today declared opposition leader Alexei Navalny guilty in a retrial of a 2013 embezzlement case, a felony conviction that may prevent the whistleblower from participating in Russia's 2018 presidential elections.
Navalny was given a suspended sentence by a judge in the Russian city of Kirov. Prosecutors asked for a five-year suspended prison sentence, which would mean no jail time for Navalny, but the election law stipulates that those with criminal convictions are not permitted to run for Russia's highest office.
Navalny in December declared his intention to run in the 2018 elections, likely pitting him against Russian President Vladimir Putin or a successor candidate favoured by the Kremlin. Putin has not said whether or not he will run for re-election.
Navalny, who first came to prominence for uncovering fraud in Russian state corporations, was an active leader during the 2011-2012 "white ribbon" protests that coalesced around Putin's 2012 return to the presidency.
A raft of fraud and embezzlement charges followed, leading to suspended sentences and periods of house arrest. He was first found guilty of embezzlement in 2013, where he was accused of abetting a scheme to siphon off money from a lumber sale. A judge first sentenced Navalny to five years in prison, but reduced it to a suspended sentence after the decision ignited protests in central Moscow.
Last year, the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg declared the 2013 conviction "prejudicial," saying that the defendants were denied the right to a fair trial. In November, Russia's Supreme Court declared a retrial. The Kremlin has denied interfering in any cases.
In the courtroom, Navalny complained that the guilty verdict was identical to the one delivered in 2013 despite the violations cited by the European Court of Human Rights.
Navalny vowed to keep campaigning while he appeals.
"What we have just seen is a telegram of sorts from the Kremlin, saying that they consider me, my team and people whose views I represent too dangerous to be allowed into the election campaign," he said. "We do not recognise this verdict, it will be overturned, and ... I have the right to run in the election."
Navalny's popularity is largest among the urban middle class in Russia, which represents a minority of the electorate, but has an outsized presence in Russian political life and the media.
Navalny ran in the Moscow 2013 mayoral elections, garnering 27 per cent of the vote. He has said he will remain politically active.
- additional reporting AP