Sentence Suspended Navalny Release Baffles Friends and Foes
On Thursday, Russian opposition blogger Alexei Navalny was handcuffed and hurried to prison after being convicted of embezzlement. On Friday, his sentence was suddenly suspended. Was it a minor courtroom error or a major Kremlin screwup?
Alexei Navalny responded to his accusers' sudden change of heart with sarcasm. He wanted to know whether it was really the state prosecutor who was now calling for his immediate release or merely a doppelgänger. After all, it was at the instigation of this same man that Navalny had been handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom just the day before. But then the court reversed gears, setting free both the 37-year-old opposition blogger and the man convicted along with him, Peter Ofitserov, on provisional release.
Navalny embraced his wife Yulia and thanked his supporters, thousands of whom had protested the verdict on Thursday night in front of the Kremlin in Moscow and other cities. Several hundred people were arrested for participating in the demonstrations, which had not been sanctioned by the authorities. "So we didn't take to the streets for nothing," tweeted one of Navalny's supporters.
But the sentence handed down by the Lenin district court -- five years for embezzlement on an "especially large scale" -- was not repealed. Although his lawyers plan to appeal, Navalny will have to begin serving his time as soon as the decision is final.
His subsequent release, however, is a highly unusual turn of events -- even for the notoriously unpredictable Russian justice system. "When a judge imposes a sentence with no parole, the offender is arrested in court," says Oksana Michalkina, a prominent Moscow lawyer.
For Navalny, his family and his supporters, the move is a pleasant surprise. But observers of the trial are baffled, and conspiracy theories are making the rounds.
One rumor holds that Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin stepped into the fray. The odd thing about this is that Sobyanin is known as a loyal member in President Vladimir Putin's camp. In early September, Sobyanin called for new elections in the Russian capital, and Navalny had been planning to run in the election. Could it be that Sobyanin needs Navalny as a rival candidate to lend legitimacy to his election victory?
Nevertheless, Alexey Mukhin, the director of the Moscow-based think tank, the Center for Political Information, who enjoys good ties with government circles, called Thursday a "black day." In his view, Navalny's release is "an attempt to salvage the situation." Just moments after the verdict was read out, Mukhin tweeted that presiding judge Sergei Blinov had simply overlooked the phrase "suspended" while pronouncing the sentence.
Such rumors also fell upon fertile ground in a newsflash by Itar-Tass. On Thursday, the Russian wire service reported that the judge had pronounced a suspended sentence.
However, in his speech, Judge Blinov made absolutely no mention of circumstances that might mitigate the sentence. The severity of the sentence outraged opposition supporters on Thursday, and they weren't alone in their dissent. Although for mostly other reasons, even some pro-government groups were stunned.
Vladimir Solovyov, a television moderator and Putin biographer, also voiced frustration that Navalny must serve five years in prison while most officials convicted of corruption get suspended sentences. In fact, 60 percent of all embezzlement cases in Russia result in suspended sentences. Solovyov was also livid that former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who was dismissed in November for suspected corruption, will most likely receive a milder sentence.
Hardly any of Putin's friends can be happy about seeing Navalny behind bars. "I never saw any potential in Navalny, but now he has some," confessed Tina Kandelaki, a journalist and television host close to the Putin government. Behind such comments are the misgiving that, by trying to defeat their sharpest critic, those in power might really only be strengthening him.
Navalny could gain stature in prison if many Russians believe that he was only prosecuted for his political beliefs. The arguments that prosecutors used during the trial failed to convince trial observers that Navalny committed the crimes of which he was accused. Radio journalist Sergey Dorenko summed it up by saying that Navalny had gone from being "the blogger to the uncontested leader" of the opposition.
Even Vitali Tretyakov, a prominent political scientist and commentator who is one of the opinion leaders among Moscow's hard-liners, has savaged the verdict. In his view, it was "schizophrenic" to allow Navalny to stand as a mayoral candidate in Moscow, and then allow him to be convicted with everyone watching. The government wanted to "outsmart" the opposition, Tretyahov says. "But it outfoxed itself."