Russian opposition leader Navalny found guilty of embezzlement, putting presidential bid in peril
The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been found guilty at a retrial of embezzlement and given a five-year suspended prison sentence, putting his proposed presidential run in 2018 in doubt.
Election rules say candidates cannot have felony convictions, but the anti-corruption activist vowed to appeal and said he would continue his campaign “no matter what happens in court”.
“What we saw was a telegram from the Kremlin saying that they consider me, my team and those people whose views I express too dangerous to allow us into the electoral race,” Navalny said in the courtroom after the verdict.
“This verdict will be overturned. I have the full right under the constitution to participate in elections, and I will do so. I will continue to represent the interests of people who want Russia to be a normal, honest, not corrupt country.”
In a trial widely seen as a means of silencing him, Navalny was convicted of embezzlement from a state timber company in Kirov in 2013, but he was allowed to run for mayor of Moscow while he appealed against the ruling. The 2013 verdict was sent for a retrial by the Russian supreme court after the European court of human rights (ECHR) found procedural violations in it last year.
Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, told journalists that Wednesday’s verdict did not answer the ECHR’s criticisms of the original trial. The verdict was based on the same evidence as in 2013 and assigned the same five- and four-year suspended sentences to Navalny and his former business partner Pyotr Ofitserov. Navalny was also ordered to pay a fine of 500,000 roubles (US$8,460).
As the judge read out the guilty verdict on Wednesday, Navalny tweeted out pages from the original verdict to support his claim that it had been copied word for word.
In a blogpost earlier on Wednesday, Navalny had predicted the verdict would be guilty and that whatever the sentence it would hinder his political activity.
Asked before the verdict if the Kremlin was worried that Navalny would lose the right to run for president, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said: “We don’t consider any such worries to be appropriate.”
The MP and anti-gay campaigner Vitaly Milonov filed a complaint with the prosecutor general on Wednesday, demanding that the campaign headquarters Navalny opened in St Petersburg last weekend be closed since the candidate had lost the right to run. Hundreds of people had stood in line there on Saturday to see Navalny.
Navalny’s short mayoral campaign in 2013 gained almost 30 per cent of the vote but lost to the Kremlin-backed incumbent, lending credence to the race despite accusations of a flawed electoral process.
The analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said Navalny or another independent candidate could be allowed to run in 2018 for similar reasons.
“The Kremlin hasn’t decided yet if it needs a sparring partner, an effective opponent who will get 10 per cent of the vote and give it legitimacy, and if it does who will it be,” he said.
A legal analysis posted to Navalny’s campaign website argued that electoral law could not bar him from the race while an appeal against the verdict was still being considered. Even if higher Russian and international courts do not overturn the ruling, the analysis pointed out that Russia’s constitution expressly forbids citizens from running for office only if they are serving a prison sentence.
Navalny came to prominence during a wave of huge street protests against the Kremlin in 2011-12. His anti-corruption foundation has continued to publish embarrassing revelations about the extravagant wealth of officials and their families. He travelled to the hearing with a duffel bag of clothes and food in case he was detained immediately after the ruling.
Last week, Russia was ordered by the ECHR to pay Navalny more than 63,000 euros in compensation because his right to peaceful protest had been repeatedly violated since 2012.