MOSCOW -- Several thousand people angered by what they consider the unfair conviction of charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny took to the streets of Moscow in protest Thursday evening.
Navalny was convicted earlier in the day of embezzling about $530,000 in 2009 from a company that has since gone bankrupt, a charge his supporters say was politically motivated. He was convicted in Kirov, a regional capital, and sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of about $15,000.
The demonstrators gathered along two main thoroughfares of Moscow, in the vast Manezh Square across from the Kremlin, waving portraits of Navalny and demanding freedom for the 36-year-old lawyer, political activist and Moscow mayoral candidate.
Riot police tried with difficulty to restrain the dense and fast-growing crowds and keep them on the sidewalks. Passing motorists honked their car horns in a sign of support. Dozens of protesters were detained.
“I came here to express support for Navalny, who fell victim of biased Russian justice tightly controlled by [President Vladimir] Putin,” Anna Frakhman, a 21-year-old graduate chemistry student told The Times. “My friends and I decided to stay here all through the night in protest against the Kremlin’s repressions.”
“Freedom for Navalny!” she shouted seconds before being dragged away by police to one of half a dozen vans standing nearby.
Public protests reportedly took place in several other major cities across the country.
“The Kremlin once again demonstrated its determination to suppress the dissent, the opposition, the civic society and also showed that it will stop at nothing and is ready to use courts as tool for political punishment,” Sergei Mitrokhin, the opposition Yabloko party chief and another mayoral candidate in elections scheduled for September, said in front of the nearby offices of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament.
“I will use the mayoral campaign to tell people the truth about Putin and about him settling scores with his political opponents with the help of prosecutors and judges the Kremlin controls,” he said.
A group of protesters stopped traffic for a time, but police received reinforcements and pushed them back to the National Hotel overlooking Manezh Square. The crowd chanted slogans, including "Russia without Putin" and "Down the police state.”
The Kremlin is making one mistake after another as it loses patience and control over the country, said Gennady Gudkov, another opposition leader. Gudkov was expelled from the lower house of parliament last year for allegedly combining his lawmaking duties with business, a charge he denounced as politically motivated.
“What happened today to Navalny is a cynical and arrogant summary justice that has nothing to do with a real objective trial,” Gudkov said at the protest. “The fact that so many people are infuriated today by this mockery of a trial tells us once again that Putin is losing control over the country, which means that he will soon lose power too.”