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Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny, left, is handcuffed and escorted by interior ministry officers inside a courtroom in Kirov on July 18, 2013. A Russian judge sentenced protest leader Alexei Navalny to five years in prison on Thursday after convicting him of large-scale theft in a trial Mr. Navalny said was politically motivated. (REUTERS)
Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny, left, is handcuffed and escorted by interior ministry officers inside a courtroom in Kirov on July 18, 2013. A Russian judge sentenced protest leader Alexei Navalny to five years in prison on Thursday after convicting him of large-scale theft in a trial Mr. Navalny said was politically motivated. (REUTERS)

Rachel Denber

By jailing opposition leader Navalny, Putin has silenced a leader and messenger Add to ...

No one will be surprised at today’s guilty verdict against the Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny – it is the culmination of a criminal prosecution brought for political reasons with a preordained conclusion. Still, the sentence is shocking.

Mr. Navalny, 37, was found guilty of embezzlement and handed a five-year prison sentence and a 500,000 ruble ($15,500 U.S.) fine. His co-defendant, Piotr Ofitserov, was sentenced to four years.

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The case is part of a broader government crackdown underway in Russia to silence a fierce critic and weaken the opposition movement. It is impossible to see this case through any lens other than a political one.

Mr. Navalny is an anti-corruption activist who emerged as a political opposition leader during the mass protests against alleged irregularities in the November 2011 parliamentary elections. The coiner of the popular nickname “party of crooks and thieves” for the ruling United Russia party, Mr. Navalny has registered as a candidate in the September Moscow mayoral election.

Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency a year ago was followed by a crackdown on Russia’s vibrant civil society, with new laws that further restrict public assemblies, criminalize libel, require certain groups to register as “foreign agents,” redefine treason, create new controls on the Internet, criminalize the “insulting” of religion, and ban spreading information among minors about “non-traditional sexuality.”

Mr. Navalny was accused of embezzling $500,000 worth of stolen timber while working as an adviser for the Kirov Region governor, Nikita Belyh, in Kirov in 2009. Charges were brought against him in July 2012, two months after Mr. Putin took office.

Russia’s new laws are aimed at putting public life in Russia under greater government control, and Mr. Navalny’s prosecution is meant to silence a leader and messenger.

Rachel Denber is deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

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