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Russia avoids making Navalny martyr but jails brother

By Steven Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

image copyrightReuters
image captionOleg Navalny was placed inside a cell in the court after receiving a difference sentence to Alexei Navalny

The tiny Moscow courtroom was packed; photographers crowded into the corner; with nowhere to sit, reporters crouched on the floor.

The Navalny brothers were 2m (6ft 6in) away from me.

They appeared relaxed as they waited to hear their fate. But they had brought bags of possessions with them, in case they were sent from the courtroom to prison.

It can take a Russian judge hours, even days, to read out a verdict and pronounce sentence. It took Judge Yelena Korobchenko just 15 minutes. She read quietly, quickly and without emotion.

There was little surprise about the verdict: Russia has a 99% conviction rate. But it was the sentencing that was unexpected.

Alexei Navalny was visibly shocked that his prison sentence for embezzlement was suspended, while his brother Oleg would be going to jail.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe hearing was moved forward after Alexei Navalny's supporters announced plans for a protest

"Why are you jailing him?" he shouted at Judge Korobchenko. "It's a disgrace. Is that to punish me more?"

Before he was led away, Oleg Navalny wished the judge a happy new year.

'Torturing relatives'

So why was one brother sent to jail and the other spared?

Their supporters are convinced this has nothing to do with justice and that politics is at play.

Alexei Navalny is a thorn in the side of the Kremlin: a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner who has emerged as the most prominent opposition figure.

When he ran in Moscow's mayoral election last year, he pushed the Kremlin's candidate hard, picking up 27% of the vote.

image copyrightAP
image captionAlexei Navalny has consistently said the charges against him and his brother were politically motivated

The authorities are keen to limit his influence and activities. Alexei Navalny has been under house arrest since February.

But neither, it seems, do they wish to turn him into a martyr by putting him behind bars. Not yet, anyway.

For months now, Alexei Navalny has been accusing the Russian authorities of trying to put pressure on him through pressure on his family; in other words, by taking his relatives "hostage" because of his own political activities.

On leaving court today, he said the authorities were "destroying and torturing the relatives of their political opponents".

"This regime does not deserve to exist. It must be destroyed," he added.

But, two days before the start of Russia's New Year holidays, will Muscovites heed Alexei Navalny's calls to take to the streets and protest against the jailing of his brother?

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