Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused the Kremlin of trying to block him from running in next year’s presidential election after a court on Wednesday found him guilty of embezzlement.
Navalny, who has made a name for himself exposing official corruption, said he would still compete in the presidential race, but it was not immediately clear if that was legally possible.
“What we are seeing now is a sort of telegram sent from the Kremlin, saying that they believe that I, my team, and the people whose views I voice, are too dangerous to allow us to take part in the election campaign,” Navalny said.
“We don’t recognise this ruling. I have every right to take part in the election according to the constitution and I will do so,” he told reporters in the courtroom, moments after the verdict was handed down.
The court, in the provincial city of Kirov, found Navalny guilty of embezzlement in relation to a timber firm called Kirovles, and gave him a five year suspended prison sentence. It also fined him 500,000 roubles. Navalny denies his guilt.
Late last year, Navalny announced a plan to run for president in 2018, when Vladimir Putin’s current term expires. Putin has not said if he will seek a new term, though most Kremlin-watchers expect him to run.
If Navalny is allowed to run and is up against Putin, opinion polls indicate the opposition leader will lose by a big margin. However, having Navalny on the ballot paper could be an irritant for the Kremlin.
It could provide a focus for anti-Kremlin protests, especially in the big urban centres where Navalny draws most of his support.
Russian law states that someone sentenced to a prison term for a crime such as embezzlement is disqualified from running for elected office.
Navalny said after the verdict that he believed he could still run, because the disqualification does not apply to someone given a suspended sentence.
Asked if Navalny’s absence from the presidential race would undermine the legitimacy of the election, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier on Wednesday: “