The presidium of Russia's Supreme Court has overturned a 2013 theft conviction against opposition figure and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny and sent the case back to the lower court for retrial.
Navalny was convicted in 2013 of large-scale theft from two Russian firms between 2008 and 2012, in a matter that came to be known as the Kirovles case. He was handed a five-year suspended sentence. Navalny’s co-defendant, Pyotr Ofitserov, was given a four-year suspended sentence.
Navalny rejected the charges as politically motivated.
Because of the conviction, Navalny was barred from participating in elections or holding office until 2033 -- a restriction that has now been lifted, potentially enabling one of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent foes to run for president in 2018.
Prosecutors had asked the Supreme Court to leave the conviction and sentence intact, while Navalny's appeal sought to have the conviction thrown out entirely -- with no retrial -- on the grounds there was no evidence of a crime.
In February, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Russia violated Navalny's right to a fair trial and ordered the government to pay him 80,000 euros in legal costs and damages. In June, the ECHR rejected Russia's appeal of that decision.
On the basis of the ECHR ruling, Navalny in August filed his appeal to the Supreme Court. In his appeal, Navalny expressed a desire to run in the 2018 election, in which Putin is eligible to seek a fourth term.
The Supreme Court on November 16 ordered Navalny's case retried in the city of Kirov, where the 2013 hearings took place, with new judges.
Navalny, 40, said he intends to file a claim with the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers -- the organization’s decision-making body -- saying the court’s order of a new trial does not fulfill the ECHR decision.
"I have absolutely no desire to go to Kirov again," Navalny told reporters. "The [Supreme Court's] decision is aimed at complicating my political activities."
Aleksei (left) and Oleg Navalny in court in December 2015
Navalny was also convicted of fraud in December 2014 in a separate case and given a 3 ½-year suspended sentence. His brother, Oleg, was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison and is currently serving this term. That conviction did not affect Navalny’s eligibility to run for political office.
The ECHR in March accepted the Navalny brothers' complaint regarding the 2014 conviction.
Navalny was a key leader of a series of large antigovernment protests that erupted after the opposition alleged that December 2011 parliamentary elections were marred by widespread fraud on behalf of the ruling United Russia party.
Putin has clamped down on opponents and civil society since he returned to the Kremlin in May 2012 after four years as prime minister. Navalny has continued to release reports alleging corruption and misuse of taxpayers' money by senior allies of Putin.
Navalny challenged the Kremlin-backed incumbent in a Moscow mayoral election in 2013, coming in second with more than 27 percent of the vote. He was allowed to run in the mayoral election because his appeal of the Kirovles conviction was still pending.
With reporting by AP, Interfax, and TASS