A Moscow court sentenced entrepreneur Alexei Kozlov, whose case was championed by protesters at recent opposition rallies, to five years in prison for fraud on Thursday.
The verdict prompted outrage in the courtroom. Kozlov’s supporters tried to prevent him from being led away with chants of “Shame!” and “Hangmen!” but were held at bay by a dozen riot police.
Defense has promised to appeal the verdict. Kozlov has already spent more than three years behind bars, which means he is set to walk out in late 2014, barring a successful court appeal.
Kozlov, 38, is accused of stealing shares of a leather production company through a fraudulent scheme in 2006. He pleaded not guilty and insisted the case was fabricated on the orders of his former business partner, ex-Russian Senator Vladimir Slutsker, over a dispute between the two men. Slutsker, in turn, has denied the allegations.
Before the appeal, Kozlov was given seven years behind bars in 2009 but a public campaign organized by his wife, journalist Olga Romanova, ended with the Supreme Court ordering a retrial last September; a rare victory for defense in Russia, where only 4 percent of appeals were overturned in the first half of 2011, according to the Supreme Court.
Kozlov's campaign was helped by the popularity of his blog, where he writes about his experiences from prison. His “Butyrka-blog,” named after an infamous prison facility, gained considerable popularity within Russia's vibrant online community.
The court refused to summon Slutsker for questioning at the new trial and sided with the prosecutors in the verdict, though it slashed the sum of financial damages Kozlov was convicted of inflicting.
Kozlov’s case became one of several causes célèbre for grassroots activists who rallied against the government in Moscow between December and March in a string of rallies, most of which attracted tens of thousands of participants. Among other things, the protesters demanded the Kremlin release several dozen alleged political prisoners, though Kozlov, who was not in custody at the time, was not on the list.
Supporters of the businessman, led by Romanova, claim his case is indicative of the sorry state of the Russian judiciary, which is notorious for its corruption and dependency on executive authorities. Thursday’s court decision triggered a backlash on Russian Facebook, which was instrumental in organizing the recent opposition street protests.
However, “Kozlov’s personal tragedy is being politicized by his supporters in order to solve the situation,” said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information. This means the verdict may not necessarily be invalid, despite the judiciary’s bad reputation, he added.