A Russian regional court has upheld the theft conviction against opposition leader Aleksei Navalny but suspended his five-year jail sentence.
The ruling on October 16 by the court in Kirov, some 1,000 kilometers northeast of Moscow, means that Navalny -- Russia's most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin -- will not be returned to prison.
Navalny and a former associate in Kirov, Pyotr Ofitserov, were convicted in July of organizing the theft of 16 million rubles ($500,000) from a timber firm in 2009 and sentenced to five years and four years in prison, respectively. Navalny appealed the verdict and sentence, saying the case against him was fabricated and politically motivated.
The judge in Kirov suspended the sentences against both men but said they must not change their permanent residences without notice and must report twice a month to a parole officer.
Navalny told journalists after the court's ruling was pronounced that he will continue his political activities, saying: "Neither my colleagues nor I will stop our political struggle. It will go on." He also said he intended to appeal the court's decision.
"Yes, this is a suspended sentence, and it looks like it was made in order not to irritate the masses of people, and so now I am free," he said. "However, now even a minor administrative misdemeanor can turn this suspended sentence into a real imprisonment. We, of course, will appeal the decision because the case has no grounds at all."
Last month, Navalny, 37, who has spoken of his presidential aspirations, finished second in Moscow's mayoral election.
The chief of Russia's Presidential Council for Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, said on October 16 that Navalny would be eligible to be fully amnestied if a decree on national amnesty is adopted by parliament. In one of his recent public speeches, President Vladimir Putin promised a prisoner amnesty later this year.
Under the current legislation, Navalny's conviction would bar him from seeking public office. Last week, however, Russia's Constitutional Court ruled that such legislation must be immediately changed.
The court's ruling could potentially allow Navalny and other Kremlin foes to eventually seek office.
Political analyst Nikolai Petrov suggested to RFE/RL's Russian Service that the suspended sentences was not entirely unexpected, since it allows the authorities to sideline Navalny politically while potentially avoiding negative public fallout from the charismatic opposition leader's jailing.
With reporting by AFP, RFE/RL's Russian Service, Reuters, and Interfax