20 Jul 2013

Putin opponent returns to Moscow in triumph

8:45 pm on 20 July 2013

Unofficial Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has triumphantly returned home to Moscow after his unexpected release from prison, saying he will push ahead with a bid to become the city's mayor.

The ABC reports that Mr Navalny and his wife Yulia stepped off an overnight train from the north-eastern city of Kirov to be hailed by hundreds of supporters chanting his name as dozens of riot police looked on.

"We are going to run and we will win," Mr Navalny said through a megaphone to roars of approval from the crowd, many of whom were clutching flowers and wearing white T-shirts reading "Navalny" or "Navalny's brother".

"Together we are a huge powerful force and I am glad we have started realising this," he said ."Ahead of us is a big, difficult electoral campaign. Seven weeks of non-stop work and it's just the start."

The mayoral election is scheduled for 8 September.

Mr Navalny's conviction and sentencing to five years in a penal colony by a Kirov court last week sparked protests in Moscow and St Petersburg from supporters of the charismatic, powerful orator and popular blogger who led unprecedented demonstrations against President Vladimir Putin in 2011-12.

In an unexpected move less than a day after his sentencing for embezzlement, a higher court in the sleepy industrial city 900 kilometres north-east of Moscow released him from jail pending his appeal against conviction. It ruled that keeping him behind bars would "limit his right to be elected" in September.

Sign of infighting among ruling elite?

The release shocked Moscow, AFP reports, with many observers describing it as a sign of infighting among the country's ruling elite and uncertainty about how to handle Mr Navalny. Some analysts have said the jailing of a high-profile Moscow mayoral candidate during the campaign was a huge embarrassment for the authorities.

Mr Navalny, 37, rose to prominence before parliamentary elections in 2011, writing a blog in which he condemned the ruling United Russia party as "crooks and thieves".

The case brought against him in Kirov -widely seen as politically motivated - was that he led a group that embezzled timber worth 16 million roubles ($960,000) from a state timber company while working as an adviser to a governor.

He will have to return to Kirov in a few weeks' time to appeal against the verdict.