The international community has voiced concern after Russia sentenced leading opposition activist Alexei Navalny to five years in jail for embezzlement. His supporters say the conviction is politically motivated.
Germany has added its voice to a chorus of criticism from around the world following the verdict on Navalny, who was sentenced to jail on Thursday.
"The nature of the trial and the tough sentence are further proof of the Russian legal system’s lack of independence," said Markus Löning, the German government’s representative for human rights affiliated with the foreign ministry.
"Russia has taken a further step back from democracy and the rule of law," he said in a statement. He demanded that Navalny be freed and given fair treatment.
The European Union, the United States, and Great Britain have also expressed their concern, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague warning against Russia’s "selective application of the rule of law."
Several thousand protesters gathered outside the Kremlin walls in Moscow and in Saint Petersburg on Thursday to protest against Navalny's sentence. A media report said more than 15 people had been arrested.
Judge Sergei Blinov sentenced Navalny hours after announcing that the Kirov court had found him guilty of embezzlement for colluding to steal 16 million rubles (382 thousand euros, $500,000) in a timber deal while acting as an unpaid advisor to the local government of Kirov.
Prosecutors in the city, located around 900 kilometers (550 miles) northeast of Moscow had called on the court to hand down a six-year sentence. The maximum possible sentence was 10 years.
Navalny, who denies the charges, stood silently in court as the judge read out the decision.
The 37-year-old blogger emerged as a political force in late 2011, when he helped spearhead a series of mass demonstrations against President Vladimir Putin, some of which drew more than 100,000 protesters to the streets of Moscow.
Navalny's supporters see the trial as being politically motivated, with the goal of sidelining one of Putin's leading critics.
Despite the impending ruling, Navalny on Wednesday declared himself a candidate to run in this autumn's mayoral election in Moscow.
Thursday's conviction bars him from taking an active role in politics for the duration of his sentence. However, if his defense lawyers decide to appeal this ban it would not come into force until the appeal process had ended. Depending on how long it were to take, he may, in theory at least, be able to take part in campaigning for the mayor’s job.
The sentence of six-years that the prosecution was seeking would have prevented him from challenging Putin in the next presidential election in 2018, something he had previously indicated he intended to do.
tj,pfd/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP)