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Russian Court Suspends Opposition Leader's Prison Sentence


And let's turn now to Russia, where a court in Moscow has given a suspended prison sentence to one of the country's leading opposition figures. Alexei Navalny is an anti-corruption blogger, and he helped organize massive anti-government protests three years ago. Ever since then, he has been the target of a series of criminal cases that have kept him under house arrest and hampered his political activities. Critics say this is all part of a Kremlin effort to crush the political opposition.

NPR's Corey Flintoff is on the line with us from Moscow. Corey, good morning.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So Russia's President Vladimir Putin has been throwing around his weight in a lot of ways over the last year or so. I mean, it sounds like a couple of his critics now, you know, getting sentences. Tell us exactly what happened here.

FLINTOFF: Absolutely. By Russian standards, the whole process this morning was just lightning-fast. A judge read a quick summary of the case and then sentenced Alexei Navalny and his brother, Oleg, to three and a half years in prison. Alexei's sentence was suspended, but his brother will be sent to a labor camp to serve out the whole term.

And Navalny and his supporters have said all along that this is a political trial; it's designed to silence one of President Putin's main critics. But they're speculating that Alexei Nalvny was given a suspended sentence so he wouldn't become a martyr or some kind of symbol for the opposition. And at the same time, though, of course, they're saying he's being psychologically punished by seeing his brother sent to prison.

GREENE: Well, Corey, one of the strange things about the case, I mean, the verdict wasn't supposed to be delivered until the middle of January. And you mentioned by Russian standards, this is very fast. I mean, a lot of trials will go on for days and days with judges reading just hours and hours of texts. I mean, what happened here?

FLINTOFF: Navalny and his lawyers say it was just yesterday that they were informed that this verdict would be delivered early. Navalny's supporters were planning a big protest on January 15 right outside the Kremlin. So now they're thinking that the government changed the date of the verdict to catch them off guard. They are still trying to organize a protest for this evening, but they don't have much time to get people together.

Another reason for delivering the verdict now could be that, you know, Russia is about to begin its long winter holidays. There's almost two weeks when a lot of Russians stay home from work and spend time with their families. So if there's public anger about this verdict, it would have some time to blow over.

GREENE: Corey, it is so easy in trials like this to dismiss this as a political trial, as the Kremlin going after a critic. But the government does say Navalny and his brother are con men who have been involved in some pretty shady deals. Is there a way to figure out the substance of the charges at all?

FLINTOFF: Navalny was convicted in another case in July of last year. He was accused of embezzling from a timber company. At the time, human rights groups said that trial was grossly unfair and that Navalny was never given a chance to really answer the charges against him. In the latest case, both brothers were accused of defrauding a cosmetics company in a shipping deal, and the company later withdrew the complaint against them.

Now, Navalny's supporters say the real reason the government is trying to silence him is that he has revealed widespread corruption among President Putin's closest circle. For instance, he's shown that high government officials have assets that are worth many times more than their government salaries, you know, assets they can't account for. And he's also published photos of these lavish estates that belong to people in Putin's circle, and he says that proves the government here is corrupt at the very highest levels.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to NPR's Corey Flintoff, telling us about one of Vladimir Putin's loudest critics getting a suspended prison sentence. Corey, thanks a lot.

FLINTOFF: My pleasure, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.