An appeals court judge decided Wednesday to suspend the five-year sentence handed down over the summer to Aleksei A Navalny,the anti-corruption crusader and blogger whose role as Russias leading opposition politician was highlighted by an unexpectedly strong showing in a mayoral election last month.
The ruling meant that Navalny,who arrived at the court lugging a backpack of clean clothes to take with him to prison,will remain free – although prohibited from travelling outside his home city,Moscow.
The decision left the sense that Navalny,37,had won his freedom by defying expectations with the strong showing in the election in Moscow,elevating his status and cementing his role as the main political opponent of President Vladimir V Putin.
Navalny told reporters that although the ruling was a victory,it was nothing to celebrate because it would interfere in his future political career. He could be prohibited from running from public office,and under terms similar to probation,any minor violation could prompt a judge to order Navalny to serve the whole term.
A judge had sentenced Navalny on embezzlement charges in July in a trial widely denounced as rigged,only to release him a day later while his application to the appeals court was taken under consideration. Navalny used the window of freedom to run for mayor of Moscow,finishing in second place,with 27 per cent of the vote.
The decision to release Navalny in July appeared to reflect divisions among Putins advisers but was seen as supported in particular by Sergei S Sobyanin,the incumbent mayor of Moscow,who won the election against Navalny. It was among the most competitive here in a decade.
Analysts argued that Sobyanin,who was all but assured of victory,wanted Navalnys candidacy to create an appearance of competition and add legitimacy to the race.
The suspension of the sentence Wednesday suggested a willingness of the Kremlin to accept the trade-off in greater legitimacy for the political system here in exchange for tolerating Navalnys often stinging criticism of Putin.
The political motivation in this case is obvious, Navalny told the judge,Albert A Prytkov of Kirov Regional Court. The prosecution was built on false testimony,Navalny said,and the proceedings railroaded through a provincial court that refused his requests for witnesses and outside experts.
But ultimately these details mattered little,Navalny suggested in an interview before the hearing,while walking to the courthouse. Everything that happened last summer and everything that happens today depends on Putin, he said. All the prosecutors,all the lawyers,all the judges are just extras here.
Navalny,whose humour and willingness to thumb his nose at the Kremlin has been intrinsic to his political success,said,The last word of the accused should be a dramatic moment in his life. But they opened so many cases against me that this will not be my last chance to have a last word.
ANDREW E KRAMER