Russia provoked international condemnation yesterday after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was jailed for five years following a politically tinged trial his allies claimed was designed to silence his criticism of the Kremlin.
A judge in the provincial town of Kirov dismissed claims that Navalny's prosecution was political and found him guilty of stealing timber worth €380,000 while he was an adviser to the regional governor in 2009.
The politician and anti-corruption campaigner was handcuffed in the courtroom, as was his co-defendant, businessman Petr Ofitserov, who was sentenced to four years.
Navalny came to prominence as the most charismatic leader of anti-Kremlin street protests in 2011 and 2012. He had registered this week to be a candidate in Moscow's mayoral elections in September and has not excluded the possibility of running for the presidency in 2018.
The sentence was greeted with outrage by his supporters and criticism in mainstream political circles. Alexei Kudrin, a former finance minister who maintains ties with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, suggested that Navalny had been deliberately removed from the political scene.
"The verdict looks less like a punishment than something intended to isolate him from public life, (and) the election process," he said.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, said: "I am convinced that using courts with the aim of fighting political opponents is unacceptable. Everything I know about this case . . . unfortunately confirms we do not have independent courts."
William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, said the case "highlighted once again the concerns felt by many about the selective application of the rule of law in Russia", while German Chancellor Angela Merkel called it a "show trial".
Michael McFaul, the US ambassador to Moscow, said: "We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial."
If he fails in an appeal against the verdict, Navalny (37) will be excluded from holding public office for life.
The prosecution rested on an accusation that Navalny had profited from deals struck between an intermediary company run by Ofitserov and Kirovles, a state-controlled timber company. The defendants claimed the deals were legal.
Looking shocked as he was sentenced, Navalny embraced his wife Yulia and his mother, and shook his father's hand before he was led away. He had tweeted throughout the three-hour and 25 minute verdict, before passing his phone to his wife.
She reportedly tweeted his final message – a portrait of a greying Mr Putin below the words "God have mercy on you" and a plea to Mr Navalny's supporters to attend a protest against the verdict.(© Daily Telegraph, London)