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No one will be surprised at today’s guilty verdict against the Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny – it is the culmination of a criminal prosecution brought for political reasons with a preordained conclusion. Still, the sentence is shocking.
Navalny, 37, was found guilty of embezzlement and handed a five-year prison sentence and a 500,000 ruble (US$15,500) fine. His co-defendant, Piotr Ofitserov, was sentenced to four years.
The case is part of a broader government crackdown under way in Russia to silence a fierce critic and weaken the opposition movement. It is impossible to see this case through any lens other than a political one.
Navalny is an anticorruption activist who emerged as a political opposition leader during the 2011 mass protests against alleged irregularities in the November 2011 parliamentary elections. The coiner of the popular nickname, “party of crooks and thieves” for the ruling United Russia party, Navalny, has registered as a candidate in the September Moscow mayoral election. Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency a year ago was followed by a crackdown on Russia’s vibrant civil society, with new laws that further restrict public assemblies, criminalize libel, require certain groups to register as “foreign agents,” redefine treason, create new controls on the Internet, criminalize insulting religion, and ban spreading information among minors about “nontraditional sexuality.”
Navalny was accused of embezzling US$500,000 worth of stolen timber while working as an adviser for the Kirov Region governor, Nikita Belyh, in Kirov in 2009. Charges were brought against him in July 2012, two months after Putin took office.
Russia’s new laws are aimed at putting public life in Russia under greater government control, and Navalny’s prosecution is meant to silence a leader and messenger.