KIROV, Russia - A Russian court's decision to sentence protest leader Alexei Navalny to five years in a penal colony on fraud charges has prompted global concern, as it disqualifies one of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics from politics.
Russian opposition activists condemned Thursday's sentence for mass embezzlement as a blatant move to punish Navalny, 37, for opposing the Kremlin just as he was preparing to stand in Moscow's mayoral election.
The United States said it was "deeply disappointed" and EU states swiftly condemned the verdict, in a new diplomatic controversy that threatens to further strain ties between Moscow and the West.
Judge Sergei Blinov said he found Navalny guilty of defrauding the local government in the northern Kirov region of 16 million rubles (S$625,040) in a timber deal while acting as an unpaid advisor to the local authorities in 2009.
"Navalny... committed a grave crime," said Blinov. Navalny's co-accused, Pyotr Ofitserov, was also found guilty and sentenced to four years in a prison colony.
The sentence is the most politically explosive judgement in Russia since anti-Kremlin tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed in 2005.
"So. Don't all get bored without me," Navalny told supporters in his last Twitter message from the courtroom before being handcuffed. "And most importantly, don't be idle."
He then handed his smartphone to his wife Yulia, hugged her and his mother, shook his father's hand and was led away by bailiffs.
In a surprise move, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor general later told AFP that on Friday prosecutors would appeal the court's decision to arrest Navalny immediately after the verdict, rather than waiting until his own appeal is heard.
This could mean that Navalny may still be released until the appeal is heard and restricted only to staying in his city of residence.
-- 'Red Square closed for repairs' --
Defying warnings by local authorities that unsanctioned protests would be broken up, several thousand Russians rallied in central Moscow outside the Kremlin walls and central Saint Petersburg Thursday evening to protest the verdict.
The Moscow municipality shut down Red Square, ostensibly for "repairs", in an apparent bid to prevent protests on the iconic Moscow landmark as it tried to keep demonstrators on sidewalks and not roads.
Around 60 people were arrested and taken away to police stations where they would likely receive administrative cautions, the ITAR-TASS news agency said.
Navalny, who emerged as a powerful new political force in mass anti-Putin protests, has dismissed the charges against him as absurd and a Kremlin set-up to end his political career.
He has said he wants to challenge Putin in the next presidential election in 2018 and coined the phrase "the party of crooks and thieves" to describe the ruling United Russia party.
Prosecutors in Kirov, a sleepy city 900 kilometres (560 miles) north of Moscow thronged by dozens of reporters for the hearing, had sought a six-year sentence.
Anti-Kremlin activists slammed the verdict as the latest effort by Putin to snuff out the slightest hint of opposition to his 13 years of rule.
"It is completely fabricated from start to finish," former cabinet minister and anti-Kremlin activist Boris Nemtsov, who was in court, told reporters.
Top Russian rights group Memorial said the country "now has one more political prisoner" while Amnesty International mocked what it said was "a parody of a prosecution and a parody of a trial".
Khodorkovsky, who is still in jail, said in a statement released through his lawyers that the verdict was "predictable". The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said it was "unacceptable" to use the courts to prosecute political opponents.
-- 'Show trial' --
The guilty verdict will disqualify Navalny, who was on Wednesday registered to run for Moscow mayor, from politics. However he could still theoretically campaign until the appeals process is exhausted.
His campaign chief Leonid Volkov told AFP that Navalny was now pulling out of the Moscow mayor election on September 8 and would urge supporters to boycott the polls.
However should Navalny be released as a result of the prosecutors' surprise appeal, that could open the door to him changing the decision and taking part in the elections, Volkov later said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US was "deeply disappointed and concerned" by the conviction.
"Navalny's harsh prison sentence is the latest example of a disturbing trend of government actions aimed at suppressing dissent in civil society in Russia," he said.
Top EU diplomat Catherine Ashton also said the verdict "raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia".
Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjoern Jagland called for Navalny to be freed pending a final court decision following appeals.
Germany's coordinator on Russia, Andreas Schockenhoff, described the legal proceedings as a "show trial" and British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned against the "selective application of the rule of law" in Russia.