MOSCOW — A regional Russian court on Wednesday declared opposition leader Alexei Navalny guilty in a retrial of a 2013 embezzlement case, handing him a felony conviction that by Russian law would prevent him from participating in Russia’s 2018 presidential elections.
Navalny received a five-year suspended sentence for allegedly siphoning off money from a lumber sale, a charge that he has denied and called politically motivated. It is one of a number of criminal cases brought against the 40-year-old politician since he became the country’s best-known critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Bad things tend to happen to those who take part in opposition politics in Russia. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister turned opposition politician, was gunned down in sight of the Kremlin walls in 2015. Vladimir Kara-Murza, another opposition activist, is in a medical coma in the hospital after a suspected poisoning, the second since 2015. Others have seen hidden camera videos, including honeytrap stings, aired on state television.
Russia’s treatment of dissenters, whether in the press or in opposition politics, garnered headlines in the United States this week after conservative television anchor Bill O’Reilly in an interview with President Trump called Putin “a killer.”
Trump opted not to repeat the statement. “There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?” he replied. A Kremlin spokesman demanded an apology from Fox News, the channel that airs O’Reilly’s show, then said it didn’t want to blow the case “out of proportion.”
While Navalny will not face jail time, the decision would appear to end his goal of challenging Putin or another Kremlin-supported candidate in Russia’s 2018 presidential elections, a bid he announced in December while the case was in court. According to Russian law, those convicted of “grave crimes,” roughly equivalent to felonies in the United States, must wait 10 years or have the conviction expunged to run for president.
Putin has not said whether he will run for reelection.
From the courtroom, wearing a white dress-shirt and jeans, Navalny declared he would ignore the sentence and “continue our campaign.”
“Our campaign has nothing to do with the court,” he said in video shot in the courtroom. “Tomorrow, the Kremlin will start saying that I do not have to right to participate in the campaign. But I would like to emphasize again that in accordance with the constitution, I do have the right.”
The verdict, delivered by a judge in the Russian city of Kirov, was nearly a carbon copy of a decision handed down by the court in 2013. The case was being retried because of criticism by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Navalny, who first came to prominence for uncovering fraud in Russian state corporations, was an active leader during the 2011-2012 “white ribbon” protests that coalesced around Putin’s 2012 return to the presidency.
A raft of fraud and embezzlement charges followed, leading to suspended sentences and periods of house arrest. His 2013 sentence was quickly reduced to probation after the verdict ignited protests in central Moscow.
Last year, the European Court of Human Rights declared the 2013 conviction “prejudicial,” saying that Navalny and his co-defendant were denied the right to a fair trial. In November, Russia’s Supreme Court declared a retrial. The Kremlin has denied interfering in the cases.
Navalny’s popularity is largest among the urban middle class in Russia, which represents a minority of the electorate, but has an outsized presence in Russian political life and the media.
Navalny ran in the Moscow 2013 mayoral elections, garnering 27 percent of the vote.