A Russian court has upheld an embezzlement verdict against opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, a politically charged ruling that will strengthen the government's case for keeping him out of next year's presidential election if President Vladimir Putin doesn't want him to run.
Navalny and co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov were not present at the May 3 hearing at the regional court in the city of Kirov, about 800 kilometers northeast of Moscow. They were represented by their lawyers.
Navalny and Ofitserov had filed an appeal after a lower court, in a retrial of a previous case, convicted them of large-scale embezzlement from a state timber company called Kirovles and handed them suspended sentences of five years and four years, respectively. They were also fined 500,000 rubles ($8,350) each.
The retrial came after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in February 2016 that the outcome of the 2013 trial, when exactly the same verdicts and sentences were handed to Navalny and Ofitserov, violated the defendants' right to a fair trial.
According to the ECHR ruling, the Russian court found the men "guilty of acts indistinguishable from regular commercial activity."
After the ECHR's ruling, Russia's Supreme Court threw out the Kirov court's 2013 conviction of Navalny and Ofitserov on charges of large-scale theft involving timber sales.
Both Navalny and Ofitserov have maintained their innocence. Navalny's lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, said on May 3 that he will challenge the latest court decision at the ECHR.
Navalny, 40, was among the leaders of large antigovernment protests in 2011-2012 and has riled the Kremlin with detailed reports alleging deep-seated corruption among officials close to Putin.
He challenged the Kremlin favorite in a Moscow mayoral election in 2013 and won nearly 30 percent of the vote, an outcome that analysts say unnerved Putin's government.
Navalny contends that the Kirovles case and a separate financial-crimes prosecution that also ended in a guilty verdict were politically motivated, state-mandated punishment for his opposition activity.
He says the Kremlin is using the courts to keep him from running for president in a March 2018 election in which Putin, who has held power as prime minister or president since 1999, is widely expected to seek and secure a new six-year term.
Navalny announced his presidential bid in December and has campaigned actively, opening campaign offices in cities nationwide. He has twice been doused with a green antiseptic liquid by assailants, including an April 26 attack that has at least temporarily left the vision in his right eye severely impaired
Russian authorities have suggested that Navalny would be barred from the presidential ballot if his conviction was upheld, citing legislation that says Russians convicted of grave crimes -- such as the offense Navalny was found guilty of in the Kirovles case -- cannot run for president.
However, Navalny's backers say the rules are unclear, and Russian officials have not stated clearly whether he will be allowed on the ballot.
Analysts say Putin, who is widely seen as the arbiter in such matters even if they are formally decided by courts or government offices, may not have decided whether it would be better to let him run or bar him from the ballot.
The head of Navalny's election staff, Leonid Volkov, said that Navalny will continue his election campaign despite the conviction on retrial.
"The ruling will have no impact at all," Volkov said.
"Our campaign was planned amid uncertainty in the Kirovles case; it was launched amid that uncertainty, and it is continuing irrespective of the [court] decision," the Interfax news agency quoted Volkov as saying.
He said Navalny "has both the moral and legal right to run" in the election.
With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and RIA Novosti