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Russian opposition leader is spared jail

A judge handed Russian opposition Alexei Navalny a suspended sentence. Navalny previously was sentenced to five years in prison.

Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press

A judge handed Russian opposition Alexei Navalny a suspended sentence. Navalny previously was sentenced to five years in prison.

KIROV, Russia — An appellate judge on Wednesday suspended a five-year sentence handed down over the summer to Alexei A. Navalny, the anticorruption crusader and blogger whose role as Russia’s leading opposition politician was highlighted by an unexpectedly strong showing in Moscow’s mayoral election last month.

The ruling meant that Navalny, who arrived at the Kirov Regional Court lugging a backpack of clothes to take with him to prison, will remain free, although he is prohibited from traveling outside his home city, Moscow, and possibly from taking part in electoral politics.

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The decision, by Judge Albert A. Prytkov, left the sense that Navalny, 37, had won his freedom by defying expectations with his strong showing in the election, elevating his status and cementing his position as the main political opponent of President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny told reporters that although the ruling was a victory, it was “nothing to celebrate” because it could interfere in his future political career. Under a 2012 law that was partially struck down by Russia’s constitutional court last week, making its status unclear, convicted felons are prohibited from running for public office. Also, under terms similar to probation, any minor violation could prompt a judge to order Navalny to serve the whole term. He will need to check in with a parole officer every two weeks.

The trial judge, Sergei Blinov, sentenced Navalny on embezzlement charges in July in a trial widely denounced as rigged. But another judge released him a day later pending the appeal, acting on a request by the same prosecutor who had just won the conviction, suggesting some high-level confusion over what should be done. Navalny used the window of freedom to revive his campaign for mayor of Moscow, finishing in second place, with 27 percent of the vote.

The decision to release Navalny in July appeared to reflect divisions among Putin’s advisers but was seen as supported in particular by Sergei S. Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, who won the election against Navalny. It was among the most competitive campaigns here in a decade.

Analysts argued that Sobyanin, who was all but assured of victory, wanted Navalny’s candidacy to create an appearance of competition and add legitimacy to the race.

Another consideration was surely the protests by thousands of people who immediately took to the streets of Moscow after the sentence was issued in July and the strong likelihood of further big protests were Navalny to be jailed again.

Prytkov’s decision suggested a willingness by the Kremlin to tolerate Navalny’s often stinging criticism of Putin in exchange for the appearance of greater legitimacy for the Russian political system.

On his blog, Navalny thanked his supporters. “The credit belongs to you, not to me,” he wrote. “You have shooed off the Toad on the Pipeline, poking it with a sharp stick,” he continued, using his usual nickname for the Russian president.

The prosecution was built on false testimony, Navalny said, and the proceedings were railroaded through a provincial court that refused his requests for witnesses and outside experts.

But ultimately these details mattered little, Navalny suggested in an interview before the hearing, while walking to the courthouse.

“Everything that happened last summer and everything that happens today depends on Putin,” he said.

“I have no idea what comes into his head, or the heads of the perverts who surround him,” he said, not letting up even while all but knocking on the gates of prison. “All the prosecutors, all the lawyers, all the judges are just extras here.”

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