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Putin Critics Say Navalny Jail Sentences Meant To Crush Opposition


A judge in Moscow gave a suspended prison sentence today to one of Russia's leading opposition figures. Alexei Navalny and his brother were convicted on, what their supporters say, were trumped-up charges of fraud. Critics say it's part of a government effort to crush all opposition to President Putin. NPR's Corey Flintoff has the latest from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Moscow riot police and interior ministry troops were ready for a burst of popular anger over today's verdict. Hundreds of them blocked off a main square near the Kremlin where the opposition has been calling for a protest rally. Police lined the sidewalks, officers with bullhorns tried to keep the crowds moving. Still, thousands of people milled on the sidewalks around the square, some even daring to yell, freedom.


FLINTOFF: This protest was originally expected to take place on January 15, when the judge was scheduled to deliver the verdict in the latest criminal case against Alexei Navalny. But yesterday, the court announced that it was moving the verdict earlier, a tactic that Navalnys' supporters believed was aimed at catching them off guard. The sentence, three and a half years each for Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg. But Alexeis' sentence was suspended, and Oleg was sent to prison. Alexei Navalny reacted angrily.

ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Through translator) It's disgusting. Now, we can see that the authorities aren't just trying to destroy political opponents and put them in jail. This time, they're deliberately destroying and tormenting the relatives of their political opponents.

FLINTOFF: Navalny and his brother were accused of defrauding the French cosmetics company Yve Rocher in a shipping deal. Company representatives later said Yve Rocher didn't suffer any losses. Navalny made his name as an anti-corruption blogger, who embarrassed top officials by revealing that they were living on income they couldn't explain. Three years ago, he helped organize massive anti-government protests in Moscow. Ever since then, he's been the target of a series of criminal cases that have kept him under house arrest and hampered his political activities. The verdict seemed to be the last straw for Navalny, as he talked to reporters outside the courtroom.

NAVALNY: (Through translator) This power doesn't deserve to exist - it must be destroyed. I call in everybody to take to the streets today. I call on everybody to take to the streets until this power that catches and torments innocent people is removed.

FLINTOFF: Navalny is awaiting appeal on a previous conviction, which human rights groups say was grossly unfair. He broke his house arrest today to go to the protest but was seized by police before he could reach the square. The supporter gave his name only as Misha(ph) because he fears reprisals from the police. He says he was walking with Navalny and his group toward the protest.

MISHA: Suddenly, five or six squad of policemen - they just broke the crowd, took him and sent him to the bus. Now, I'm thinking, maybe, we should like protect him - try to pull him out, but it's just pointless because there were 20 very tough people in armor, and what could we do?

FLINTOFF: That's the dilemma for most of the people in Russia's opposition movement. What to do against a powerful state that they say is determined to crush dissent. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.