A court in Kirov has jailed the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny for five years for theft.
It is an unexpectedly heavy punishment for a a crime Navalny insists he did not commit, and there were protests in Moscow, outside the court and in other cities.
“This is total lawlessness, this is absolutely a result of the political order from above. We all here understand that if we don’t come to protest then it could happen to any of us,” said supporter Alexander Rykov.
Navalny has been the highest-profile critic of President Putin and has won considerable urban support among the young and middle class who agree with him that Putin’s United Russia party is a band of “swindlers and thieves”. Even a former finance minister and longtime Putin ally says “it is an attempt to isolate him from society and the electoral process”.
President Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” by the verdict. The EU’s Catherine Ashton said it raised doubts as to the rule of law in Russia. For supporters and family, there were only tears.
“We very much count on your support. And the most important thing we can do now is to continue our work and show our solidarity. We will win, and please believe everything will be wonderful in the end. Thank you,” said his wife Yulia.
Navalny is the most prominent opposition figure to be jailed since the Soviet period. He is likely to appeal, but even if he fails by Russian political standards he is young, so time is on his side in his personal crusade against Putin.