Vladimir Putin Critic Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison, Released Hours Later

A court found one of Russia's most prominent political activists guilty of embezzlement, only to release him just hours later. After Alexei Navalny was sentenced on Thursday to five years in prison, a Russian court found that jailing him would have denied Navalny the ability to continue running for mayor of Moscow, thereby depriving him of his rights.

Navalny has been one of President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken critics, openly campaigning against endemic corruption in Russian business and government. He is famous for coining the phrase "the party of crooks and thieves" to refer to United Russia, the country's main political party. During the elections in 2012 Navalny was the unofficial face of a movement that drew tens of thousands into Moscow's streets to protest Putin's return to power.

Critics believe his conviction was tainted with corruption and political strong-arming, with some claiming that the courts are taking orders directly from the Kremlin. 

The charges brought against Navalny were for circumstances surrounding a deal he arranged in 2009 while acting as an assistant to the governor of Kirov. He negotiated a contract between a state-owned timber company in Kirov and another firm that caused a loss, leading prosecutors to "suspect" that Navalny had lined his own pockets. A local court dropped the charges, but a federal court pounced on the opportunity to try Navalny at a higher level. Navalny denied all charges, citing the politically-motivated nature of the case against him.

Upon hearing of the original conviction U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted that he is, "deeply disappointed in the conviction of Navalny and the apparent political motivations in this trial." The office of the EU foreign affairs chief released a statement citing procedural shortcomings in the trial, and prominent U.S. lawmakers have also expressed concerns over a sense that repression is growing in Russia once again.

There have been a series of highly questionable court rulings in Russia in recent years, including the trial of demonstrators accused of rioting in Moscow during Putin's inauguration, as well as in the case of Maria Alyokhina, a punk rocker who was sentenced to two years in a labor camp for protesting in Moscow's main cathedral.

This strange turn of events raises more questions than it answers. What is the unseen relationship between Putin and the courts really like? Without the overturning of Navalny's conviction, would there have been significant riots like the ones when Putin returned to office?

Navalny's release following the overturned ruling is pending. Stay tuned for more coverage.

For more reporting on the developing story, follow Alexander on Twitter @AlexdeAvilaCA.