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Russian opposition leader released

A Russian court on Friday unexpectedly freed protest leader Alexei Navalny pending his appeal against a five-year sentence on embezzlement charges, after his jailing prompted thousands to take to the streets in protest.

ERGEI BROVKO/AFP/Getty Images

A Russian court on Friday unexpectedly freed protest leader Alexei Navalny pending his appeal against a five-year sentence on embezzlement charges, after his jailing prompted thousands to take to the streets in protest.

KIROV, Russia (AP) — A Russian court on Friday released opposition leader Alexei Navalny from custody less than 24 hours after he was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison.

The release came after a surprise request by prosecutors, who said that because Navalny is a candidate in this fall’s Moscow mayoral race keeping him in custody would deny him his right to seek election.

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Judge Ignatiy Embasinov supported that appeal, saying that Navalny’s incarceration would ‘‘prevent him from exercising his rights of be elected.’’

Navalny’s supporters cheered Embasinov’s order.

The release, under the condition that he not travel outside Moscow, will extend until appeals of his conviction are completed.

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After the Friday decision, a smiling Navalny — a popular blogger who has exposed high-level corruption and mocked the Kremlin — emerged from the caged-off defendants’ section of the courtroom, hugged his wife, and thanked the supporters who had protested his conviction on Manezhnaya Square next to the Kremlin the day before.

Navalny, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, said his release was a result of Thursday’s protests. He claimed his conviction and sentence ‘‘had been vetted by the presidential administration, ‘‘but when people came out on Manezhnaya they rushed to go back on that decision.’’

Navalny’s lawyer Olga Mikhailova described Friday’s ruling as unprecedented in Russia. His conviction on Thursday was criticized by the United States and the European Union.

Outside the court, Navalny was greeted by supporters, one of them offering him blini — Russian pancakes — a sarcastic play on the name of the judge who sentenced him, Sergei Blinov.

Navalny said it’s ‘‘impossible to predict’’ whether Friday’s decision could raise the chances of his acquittal on appeal. He also expressed resentment over being manipulated, saying he has not yet decided whether to continue his mayoral campaign.

‘‘I'm not some kitten or a puppy that can be thrown out of election, say, ‘you’re not running’ and later say ‘yes, let’s get him back in.’ I will get back to Moscow and we will talk it over with my election headquarters,’’ he said.

Presentation of the appeal and the decision by the court for the Kirov region took little more than an hour, a sharp contrast to the droning 3 ½-hour verdict reading and sentencing in a lower court the previous day.

Navalny said he learnt about the protests in Moscow only on Friday morning from his lawyers. He said he was awakened and summoned to go to court: ‘‘I thought maybe it’s a new court case.’’

Navalny rose to prominence among the opposition during a series of massive protests in Moscow against President Vladimir Putin’s re-election to a third presidential term in March 2012.

Navalny began his rise to prominence by blogging about his investigations into corruption at state-owned companies where he owned shares, reaching hundreds of thousands of people. He and his team of lawyers and activists have plumbed property registers abroad to identify top officials and lawmakers who own undeclared foreign assets and hold foreign citizenship.

Navalny’s blog quickly became an Internet sensation not only because of his exposures but because of its engaging illustrations, funny images and witty catchphrases. It was Navalny who first called the dominant United Russia party ‘‘the party of crooks and thieves,’’ a phrase that still dogs Kremlin loyalists.

The opposition leader’s investigations targeted a wide circle of Putin loyalists — from members of Parliament to state bankers — threatening to discredit the system of governance he has built.

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Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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