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Calls for mass protests in Russia after opposition leader is sentenced to prison

A court on Tuesday sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to more than two years in prison. Since his return from Germany last month after an assassination attempt in Russia, tens of thousands have taking to the street to protest his detention. Special correspondent Stuart Smith reports from Moscow.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now a closer look at the prison term given to Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny.

    Since his return from Germany last month after an assassination attempt in Russia, tens of thousands have taken to the streets each weekend in protest.

    Special correspondent Stuart Smith in Moscow reports.

  • Stuart Smith:

    He may have escaped death, but he hasn't escaped the reach of his government, which allegedly ordered his assassination.

    In a speech in court before the verdict, he denounced Vladimir Putin in stark terms and repeated this claim against the president:

  • Alexei Navalny (through translator):

    No matter how much Putin pretends to be a geopolitician, he will go down in history as a poisoner.

  • Stuart Smith:

    After a trial which he and his campaign team call politically motivated, the Kremlin's most vehement critic is heading back behind bars.

    It's the outcome his supporters have been trying hard to prevent. Last weekend, residents of over 100 towns across Russia gathered for a second round of protests.

    Twenty-year-old Kristina is among those who wants change. Vladimir Putin has been in power, as president or prime minister, for her whole life.

  • Kristina Ramires (through translator):

    I came out because I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid of any of this. I want to speak my mind for freedom of thought, for freedom of action in our country.

  • Stuart Smith:

    A lack of freedom, lack of wealth, a lack of justice, all complaints at the largest unsanctioned nationwide protests in modern Russian history.

  • Kristina Ramires (through translator):

    In order for the authorities to hear us, we have to come out every day.

  • Stuart Smith:

    The authorities want to stop them. Within minutes of arriving, Kristina was detained. She joined the ranks of more than 5,000 across Russia who found themselves in police vans on Sunday, joining 4,000 detained a week before.

    And police were willing to use baton strikes and Tasers to get them inside, a level of violence not yet seen. Spearheading the protests are members of Alexei Navalny's anti-corruption foundation. Its executive director lives in the U.K., after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

    Vladimir Ashurkov says Navalny could yet be released, if enough pressure builds on President Putin.

  • Vladimir Ashurkov:

    It's very important to keep the pressure, and we're lobbying in the international arena for the Western governments to take a more proactive stance.

  • Stuart Smith:

    The eyes of the world are now on Russia.

    The U.S. and the European Union denounced the crackdown, and the United Nations Security Council is discussing Russia's treatment of protesters and Navalny's detention.

    Opposition activists are pressing for sanctions. Without them, they fear further repression. The Kremlin says its response is proportionate and legal. People are free to express their opinions, but must do so within the boundaries of the law.

    But officials say the protesters' complaints are not valid.

  • Leonid Slutsky (through translator):

    Navalny is a person who specifically helps the enemies of Russia to defame the image of Russia in the eyes of the world. He operates with lies. His so-called Anti-Corruption Foundation, unfortunately, has nothing in common with reality.

  • Stuart Smith:

    Its most recent investigation accused President Putin of corruption directly. The video on YouTube has received over 100 million views. Supporters vow to continue Navalny's investigative work, but his political movement could flounder without its leader.

    With Alexei Navalny sentenced to prison, and calls for mass protest, this could be a pivotal moment for the campaign. The way the state responds could galvanize more support or quell the protests entirely.

    Despite opposition momentum, leading political scientists don't expect regime change any time soon.

  • Ekaterina Schulmann:

    It's only in fairy tales that a revolutionary crowd takes over the palace of the dictator. This does not happen.

  • Stuart Smith:

    But these protests have stretched across the breadth of Russia. They could mark the beginning of a deepening political consciousness.

  • Ekaterina Schulmann:

    What we are going to experience, I think, is the — such a change both in the public mood and in the public mass political behavior, not just centered in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and bigger cities, but spread across Russia and reaching maybe through those social stratas that were not politicized before.

  • Stuart Smith:

    Today's ruling may have taken away Alexei Navalny's freedom, but, for now, it seems only to have increased his impact.

    The Kremlin will hope that, with imprisonment, his notoriety fades. His supporters hope it marks the start of a political revolution.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stuart Smith in Moscow.

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