Judge Frees Russian Opposition Leader During Appeal

KIROV, Russia — Russia’s most prominent opposition leader was released from police custody on Friday, a day after his conviction on embezzlement charges, as the Russian authorities edged back from a decision that set off angry protests in several of Russia’s largest cities.
Late on Thursday the prosecutor in Kirov, where Aleksei A. Navalny was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, petitioned the judge to release him pending his appeal, arguing that the arrest prevented him from taking part in the Moscow mayoral election. That could keep Mr. Navalny out of prison for more than a month, perhaps temporarily neutralizing the anger at the verdict while allowing him to run for mayor of Moscow in September.
Mr. Navalny, who famously branded President Vladimir V. Putin’s United Russia political machine the “party of swindlers and thieves,” was apparently singled out by the Kremlin after having grown in stature from his beginnings as an anti-corruption blogger and leader of street protests to a populist candidate for mayor.
Asked to make a comment during the hearing Friday, Mr. Navalny, who seemed in good spirits, reflected on the bizarre nature of the prosecutor’s motion to release him.
“I request that you verify the identity of Prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov,” he said. “It’s possible that it is not Prosecutor Bogdanov but his double. Because it was namely Prosecutor Bogdanov demanded that I be arrested in the courtroom.”
Although the prosecutor’s motivation was not clear, Mr. Navalny’s supporters believed the protests had swung the balance.
As crowds of demonstrators swirled near Manezh Square in Moscow on Thursday night, Dmitri Gudkov, a political opposition leader and member of Parliament who attended Mr. Navalny’s sentencing, wrote on Twitter: “Tomorrow morning he may be released. Manezh, this is thanks to you!” That was later confirmed by Vadim Kobzev, Mr. Navalny’s lawyer, who called it “a clearly political decision.”
By early morning on Friday, as many as 200 people had been detained in Moscow, Aleksei Mayorov, a municipal security official, told Interfax. Despite tight security, protesters managed to mass at a major intersection on Thursday night and at one point the crowds blocked the main artery leading to the Kremlin gates. The police estimated the crowd at 2,000, while protesters said it was upward of 5,000.

The Navalny case has captivated Moscow. When speaking before a crowd, Mr. Navalny projects a raw charisma. He was the leader in a popular opposition movement in which huge numbers of demonstrators poured into the streets demanding the rule of law and political reform. But when Mr. Putin returned to the presidency, his crackdown managed to discourage or frighten many of Mr. Navalny’s supporters — young, professional, tech-savvy Russians — into silence.

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