Putin foe freed after less than a day amid outcry over jailing
A Russian court has freed charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny from custody – less than 24 hours after he was convicted of embezzlement.
The surprise release was attributed by many 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 winter.
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.
After the decision, 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!".
He said his release was a result of the protests. He claimed his conviction and sentence "had been vetted by the presidential administration".
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 described the decision as unprecedented.
Navalny said it's "impossible to predict" whether yesterday's decision could raise the chances of his acquittal on appeal.
"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 three-hour verdict reading and sentencing in a lower court the previous day.
That harsh ruling provoked immediate anger. The US and EU both criticised the ruling within hours, arguing that the case appeared to be politically motivated.
Navalny rose to prominence during a series of massive protests against Mr 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.
Sentencing Navalny was the latest move in a multipronged crackdown on dissent that followed Mr 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 organisations.
The charges dated back a few years when he worked as an unpaid adviser to the provincial governor in Kirov.
Prosecutors said he was part of a group that embezzled 16 million rubles (€375,000) of timber from state-owned company Kirovles.