A Russian court has sentenced opposition activist Aleksei Navalny to five years in prison on embezzlement charges in a closely watched trial that could deepen political divides exposed by Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin.
Navalny supporters have urged Russians to stage rallies at Manezh Square in the capital and in other cities to support him, with thousands of people pledging to turn up.
Hundreds of people are already gathered near the square, which sits just outside the Kremlin walls, to show their anger.
But authorities have closed access to Manezh, citing construction work, with riot police on hand. Eyewitnesses say police have urged people to go home.
Navalny, an anticorruption blogger who rose on the national stage after heavily criticized parliamentary and presidential elections more than a year ago, says the charges are politically motivated.
He and co-defendant Pytor Ofitserov were charged with stealing and illegally selling more than $500,000 worth of lumber from the Kirovles timber company in 2009. Ofitserov was given a four-year sentence.
Navalny’s lawyer, Sergei Kobelev, says his client will appeal the verdict.
WATCH: Navalny and Ofitserov being led from the courtroom by police in bullet-proof vests in this video from the Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI):
Judge Sergei Blinov announced the guilty verdict in a courtroom in Kirov, around 950 kilometers east of the capital.
"The court finds Aleksei Anatolyevich Navalny guilty under Article 33 and Article 160 of the Russian Criminal Code of March 7, 2011 and sentences him to five years' imprisonment without [further] restriction of freedom, and a fine of 500,000 rubles ($15,400) to be paid to the state," Blinov said. "The prison term is to be served at a general-security penal colony."
Navalny was then handcuffed, and he and Ofitserov were taken into custody.
Supporters in front of the court building in Kirov shouted chants, including "Freedom for Navalny! One for all and all for one!" before police detained at least two people at the spontaneous protest.
An RFE/RL TIMELINE of Navalny's rise to opposition prominence:
Kirovles director Vyacheslav Opalev testified against Navalny during the trial, and the judge said he found Opalev's 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.
Blinov opened the final session by detailing the court's findings against the defendants.
"Acting out of selfish interests, as Navalny organized the crime he also planned to oversee its execution, together with his associate Ofitserov, who is prosecuted as an accomplice, and developed a criminal plan to embezzle Kirovles property in favor of a newly created organization under [Ofitserov and Navalny's] control, established and headed by Ofitserov," Blinov said.
'Rule Of Law'
Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, told journalists that her husband's fight against corruption will continue.
"Our whole family and I have supported and will continue to support him," she said. "If anyone hopes that Aleksei's investigations will stop, it's not going to happen. His anticorruption foundation will continue its work. We very much hope for your support. The most important thing we can do now is to continue working and show solidarity with Pyotr and Aleksei."
Navalny is a vocal critic of President Putin and says the case against him was meant to silence him and derail his political ambitions.
The judge addressed that accusation in his verdict, saying that "Navalny's claims that his prosecution has been politically motivated have not been substantiated. The defense presented no evidence of any impartiality or bias on the part of investigators or experts in this criminal case."
The verdict in the case came one day after Navalny was confirmed as a candidate in Moscow's upcoming mayoral election. But his campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, said they had made a preliminary decision to withdraw from the race. Volkov told Ekho Moskvy radio that they would call on Navalny's supporters to boycott the election.
An opinion poll by the independent Levada Center predicted Navalny would finish second in the mayoral election with 8 percent of the vote. The incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, who is loyal to the Kremlin, was projected to win by a comfortable margin.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, reacted to the verdict on his Twitter account. "We are deeply disappointed in the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial," McFaul said in the post.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton responded to the verdict by saying in a statement that "[t]he charges against them have not been substantiated during the trial."
The statement added: "This outcome, given the procedural shortcomings, raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia."
Rising Political Star
Rights groups also decried the court decision.
Sergei Nikitin of Amnesty International's Moscow office said the verdict against Navalny "testifies to the worsening situation with human rights in Russia."
Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Russian rights group Memorial called the court ruling "politically motivated."
Navalny was posting messages via Twitter to his hundreds of thousands of followers throughout the court session. His final post said, "It's OK. Try not to miss me. And most of all, don't be lazy. The toad won't leave the oil pipeline by itself."
Navalny emerged as a leading opposition figure during the protests that followed the parliamentary elections won by the ruling United Russia party in December 2011 and demonstrations against Putin's return for a third presidential term via a March 2012 election.
WATCH: Footage of the Navalny case verdict (in Russian)
With reporting by Rapsinews.ru, Interfax, and Reuters