A judge in Kirov, Russia, has ordered the release of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny a day after his conviction and sentencing to five years in prison on embezzlement charges.
On July 19, state prosecutor Sergei Bogdanov requested Navalny be freed while he appeals his conviction, but called for "travel restrictions" to be placed on the anticorruption blogger and activist.
During the court session, Navalny used his opportunity to speak and also his sense of humor to point out the difference between Bogdanov’s attitude on July 18 and his request to the court the following day.
"Esteemed court, first of all, I would like to bring to your attention the need to ascertain the identity of prosecutor Bogdanov as there is a chance that this is his double sent by members of the opposition, because it was prosecutor Bogdanov who demanded that I be detained in court," Navalny said.
Judge Ignatiy Embasinov accepted the prosecution’s request to free Navalny, citing his candidacy for Moscow mayor as one of the reasons for releasing the prominent government critic.
"Navalny's incarceration over the course of the election campaign places him in an unequal position as compared to other registered candidates and restricts his right to be elected," Embasinov said.
Navalny was immediately released but is subject to travel restrictions and is under orders not to leave Moscow, his official place of residence. The opposition figure called the decision a "major surprise."
On July 18, a different court in Kirov found Navalny and another man, Pyotr Ofitserov
, guilty of defrauding a local lumber firm of $500,000 when Navalny was an adviser to the Kirov governor in 2009.
Kirovles director Vyacheslav Opalev testified against Navalny during the trial and the judge said he found his testimony "trustworthy and consistent." Opalev pleaded guilty to conspiring with Navalny and received a suspended sentence.
Navalny said he was framed by Opalev because he had recommended that the Kirovles director be fired and investigated for corruption.
The conviction was heavily criticized by Western countries as politically motivated and prompted protests around Russia.
Several thousand people demonstrated against the court decision in Moscow overnight. Some 150 people were detained but most were released after receiving a warning from police.
Speaking to journalists in the Kirov court after his release, Navalny indicated that he would decide soon about whether to continue his mayoral candidacy.
"The election campaign will continue because it is about our communication with the voters, not with commissions," he said. "As to what form it will take -- in the form of a boycott or as the continuation of my election campaign -- I will make that decision after I return to Moscow and meet with my campaign team."
Navalny initially gained prominence for his blogs targeting corruption in the Russian government. He was the first to refer to President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party as "the party of swindlers and thieves," a phrase that has become a common refrain at opposition rallies.