A Russian court has ordered leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny freed on bail. This comes a day after he was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison.
Another court in the northern city of Kirov on Friday ordered that Navalny be released while he awaits the outcome of an appeal against his conviction and sentence, but it also imposed travel restrictions on the 37-year-old blogger.
There was no immediate indication of how long the appeal process might take.
Navalny was allowed to walk out of the Kirov district court room immediately after the bail ruling by the Kirov regional court.
"This is a major surprise," the AFP news agency quoted Navalny as saying upon his release. "What happened now is a completely unique phenomenon in the system of Russian justice," he added..
Navalny running for mayor
Navalny is expected to return to Moscow, where he registered earlier this week as a candidate in the city's September 8 mayoral election.
A criminal conviction would prevent Navalny from seeking any public office, but this restriction can only come into force when a court decision becomes final – after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.
Surprisingly, the request that Navalny be released on bail came from public prosecutors.
On Thursday, Judge Sergei Blinov sentenced Navalny to five years in jail after finding 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.
Shortly after the decision was handed down, thousands of Navalny's supporters demonstrated in both Moscow and St. Petersburg to protest against the conviction and sentence.
The ruling also drew widespread condemnation from the West.
"The nature of the trial and the tough sentence are further proof of the Russian legal system's lack of independence," a statement released by the German government's human rights commissioner, Markus Löning, said.
"Russia has taken a further step back from democracy and the rule of law," Löning added.
The European Union, Britain and the United States expressed similar concerns.
Navalny 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. He has also said he hopes to challenge Putin in the next presidential election in 2018.
pfd/ipj (AP, AFP, dpa)