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Alexei Navalny, Prominent Russian Voice of Dissent, Convicted of Embezzlement

July 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to Russia, where, today, a court convicted and gave a five-year sentence to a leading member of the opposition movement.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: The guilty verdict for Alexei Navalny and his co- defendant, Pyotr Ofitserov, was all but certain this morning.

JUDGE SERGEI BLINOV, Russia (through translator): The court concludes that the guilt of Navalny and Ofitserov in this circumstance is proven in full. And the court and sentences Navalny to five years in prison.

RAY SUAREZ: And with that, Russia’s most prominent voice challenging President Vladimir Putin was transformed into a convicted criminal.

Navalny was convicted of embezzling $500,000 worth of timber from a state-owned firm in Kirov in 2009.

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But the lawyer-turned-muckraker claimed the case was really reprisal for his crusade against corruption and for organizing against Putin and his United Russia Party. Navalny had famously dubbed it the party of crooks and thieves.

The judge rejected any claim of political bias.

JUDGE SERGEI BLINOV (through translator): Navalny’s defense has not given a single piece of evidence that people involved in investigation of this criminal case or people providing expert opinions were biased in any way.

RAY SUAREZ: But outside the court, Navalny’s attorney said the entire proceeding was a setup.

OLGA MIKHAILOVA, attorney for Alexei Navalny (through translator): The verdict was copied from the prosecution statement word for word in some places. Everything created in the depths of the investigative committee was voiced today by the court.

RAY SUAREZ: Navalny became a leader of mass protests when it became clear in late 2011 Putin would once more become president, following the term of his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Just before the March 2012 presidential election, Margaret Warner interviewed Navalny about Putin. They spoke at his office in Moscow, where Navalny later found an eavesdropping device.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that he could institute reforms and also weed out corruption from within his system?

ALEXEI NAVALNY, Russian opposition leader (through translator): Unfortunately, this is impossible, because corruption has become the core on which he built his political power.

In his opinion, corruption is a very efficient way of management. For him, there is no problem of his ministers being billionaires. There is no problem in his governance being so corrupt that everybody in the country knows about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, Navalny spent much of the three-hour court session tweeting defiant commentary, despite orders from the judge to shut off his smartphone.

One final tweet read in part: “Oh, well. Don’t get bored without me, and, importantly, don’t be idle.”

Then, he was led from court in shackles, and driven to jail, pending transfer to a prison camp. Thousands of protesters gathered near the Kremlin after the verdict and sentencing. Dozens of arrests were reported.

ALEKSANDR RYKOV, Navalny supporter (through translator): This is total lawlessness. This is absolutely a result of the political order from above. We all here understand that if we don’t come to protest, then it could happen to any of us.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, also denounced the verdict in a tweet, saying: “We’re deeply disappointed in the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial.”

Late today, perhaps in a bid to cool public sentiment, prosecutors asked that Navalny be released pending appeal.