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Russia jails protest leader Navalny for five years

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sits in the courtroom in Kirov, northern Russia on July 18, 2013
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sits in a courtroom in Kirov, northern Russia on July 18, 2013, as a court found him guilty of embezzlement. The court on Thursday sentenced Navalny to five years in a penal colony after finding him guilty of embez

A Russian court on Thursday sentenced protest leader Alexei Navalny to five years in a penal colony after finding him guilty of embezzlement, a verdict which will disqualify one of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics from politics.

Judge Sergei Blinov said he found Navalny guilty of defrauding the local government in the northern Kirov region of 16 million rubles ($500,000) in a timber deal while acting as an unpaid advisor to the local authorities.

Navalny, 37, who emerged as a powerful political force in mass anti-Putin protests and is standing in elections for Moscow mayor, has dismissed the charges against him as absurd and a Kremlin set-up to end his political career.

"Navalny... committed a grave crime," said judge Sergei Blinov as he delivered the sentence. His co-accused, Pyotr Ofitserov, was also found guilty and sentenced to four years in a prison colony.

"The court has established that Navalny organised the criminal act and led the execution of this large-scale embezzlement," Blinov told the cramped courthouse in Kirov.

After the verdict, Navalny hugged his wife and mother, shook his father's hand and was then handcuffed by court bailiffs who led him away, an AFP correspondent in court reported.

Anti-Kremlin activists have slammed the trial as the latest in a line of moves by Putin to snuff out the slightest hint of opposition to his 13 years of rule.

"It is completely fabricated from start to finish and even the judge could not say what the reason for the crime was, what was the point," former cabinet minister and anti-Kremlin activist Boris Nemtsov, who was in court, told reporters.

Journalists gather outside the courthouse in Kirov, northern Russia on July 18, 2013 for the trial of Alexei Navalny
Journalists gather outside the courthouse in Kirov, northern Russia on July 18, 2013 for the trial of Russia's top opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Outside court, Navalny supporters shouted "down with police state" and tried to break through a police barricade. Some wore "Putin is a thief" T-shirts.

Prosecutors in Kirov, a sleepy city 900 kilometres (560 miles) northeast of Moscow, had sought a a six-year prison colony sentence.

The conviction alone will remove Navalny, who was on Wednesday registered to run for Moscow mayor, from politics once the appeals process is exhausted..

In his usual dress of a shirt with rolled-up sleeves and jeans, Navalny spent most of the three-and-a-half hour hearing fiddling with is mobile phone and mocking the judge on Twitter.

In a relatively unusual move, the court has allowed video recording of the entire trial to be broadcast live online.

But state television showed only limited interest in the process and preferred to lead news bulletins with glowing reports about the success of Russian athletes at the Universiade world student games which wrapped in Kazan on Wednesday.

Anti-Putin activists have vowed to stage protests against the verdict outside the Kremlin walls later Thursday, but the Moscow municipality warned against such actions.

"No application for permission has been received and this will be seen as an illegal event," said the head of the Moscow security department, Alexei Mayorov, quoted by the state ITAR-TASS news agency.

The verdict comes a day after he was accepted as a candidate for the high-profile Moscow mayoral race in September, raising the bizarre prospect that he could run for office while behind bars.

Navalny's disqualification from politics would only take effect after the appeal process, so he could still theoretically campaign during this period.

Navalny has said he wants to challenge Putin in the next presidential elections in 2018 and coined the phrase "the party of crooks and thieves" to describe the ruling United Russia party.

In a typically uncompromising gesture, Navalny this week published a detailed report accusing one of Putin's closest allies, the head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, of possessing vast undeclared property and business assets.

Navalny has also yet to win wide recognition beyond his powerbase in Moscow, where he has become a hero for many in the Internet-savvy middle class who yearn to live in a different Russia.