KIROV, Russia — Alexei Navalny, a charismatic and creative Russian opposition leader who exposed high-level corruption and mocked the Kremlin, was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement on Thursday, in a verdict that set off street protests and drew condemnation from the West.
The Moscow mayoral candidate was led from the court in handcuffs and bused to a jail. Soon afterward, in an unexpected development, prosecutors asked that he be kept free pending appeal.
Several thousand opposition supporters gathered just outside the Kremlin to protest Navalny's conviction and sentence.
The request to have him released during his appeal could be an attempt by officials to soothe public anger and to lend legitimacy to September's mayoral race, which a Kremlin-backed incumbent is expected to win.
Navalny, a popular blogger and corruption-fighting lawyer, rose to rock star status among the opposition during a series of massive protests in Moscow against President Vladimir Putin's re-election to a third presidential term in March 2012.
Sentencing Navalny is the latest move in a multipronged crackdown on dissent that followed 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 organizations.
The conviction galvanized the opposition, which has been increasingly cornered by the Kremlin's crackdown and weakened by internal rifts.
— Associated Press
A few hours after the verdict, several thousand activists gathered on a central avenue near Red Square, clapping hands and chanting "Freedom!" and "Putin is a thief!"
They briefly blocked traffic on busy Tverskaya avenue, shouting "This city is ours!" Police rounded up several dozen demonstrators, but didn't move to disperse the rally, which lasted for several hours.
The protesters stuck posters to advertising billboards that read: "Putin, you coward, come out!" and' "Navalny to president, Putin to prison!" Activists handed out bright red stickers with similar slogans as many passing motorists blared horns in support.
The unsanctioned protest looked small compared to the massive anti-Putin demonstrations which attracted more than 100,000 in the fall of 2011 and the beginning of the following year. But unlike those protests, which were allowed by the authorities, the participants in Thursday's rally braved the threat of heavy fines and prison sentences.
Several hundred demonstrators also rallied in Navalny's support in St. Petersburg, and a few dozen were detained by police.
Navalny was found guilty Thursday of heading a group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company in 2009.
The blue-eyed 37-year-old played with his smartphone for much of the nearly 3 <0x00BD>-hour verdict reading. A post on his Twitter account after the sentence was announced told his supporters: "Oh, well. Don't get bored without me. And, importantly, don't be idle."
Navalny handed his phone and watch to his wife, Yulia, before bailiffs took custody of him and a co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov, who was given a four-year sentence.
Navalny's mayoral campaign chief, Leonid Volkov, said he would stay in the race, if set free. "It's quite simple: If he is released he will; if not, he won't."
The U.S. and EU both criticized the ruling within hours, arguing that the case appeared to be politically motivated.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said in a statement that the conviction demonstrated that "our courts aren't independent." He said: "It's inadmissible to use courts against political opponents."
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