KIROV, Russia — Alexei Navalny, a charismatic and creative Russian opposition leader who exposed high-level corruption and mocked the Kremlin, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement Thursday, in a verdict that set off street protests and drew condemnation from the West.
Supporters called the harsh ruling an obvious attempt to shut down a foe of President Vladimir Putin and intimidate other opposition activists.
In a surprise move, prosecutors later asked that he be kept free pending appeal, possibly reflecting an attempt to soothe public anger and to lend legitimacy to a mayoral race expected to be won by a Kremlin-backed politician.
Navalny, a 37-year-old lawyer who rose to fame as an anti-corruption blogger before leading unprecedented protests that revealed the depths of anger against the Kremlin, was found guilty of heading a group that embezzled 16 million rubles, or about $500,000, worth of timber from a state-owned company in 2009.
Backers say he is innocent, calling the trial unfair and the evidence against him shoddy. The United States and European Union criticized the ruling, saying the case appeared to be politically motivated.
Navalny had expected the ruling and protests were planned even before it was handed down, setting up a potential confrontation with police, who routinely crack down harshly on unsanctioned rallies. By early evening, several hundred protesters gathered outside Red Square, shouting "Freedom!" amid thick police cordons. Police detained some of the demonstrators, but didn't immediately move to disperse the rally.