KIROV, Russia — Alexei Navalny, a charismatic and creative Russian opposition leader who exposed high-level corruption and mocked the Kremlin, was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement on Thursday, in a verdict that set off street protests and drew condemnation from the West.
The Moscow mayoral candidate was led from the court in handcuffs and bused to a jail. Soon afterward, in an unexpected development, prosecutors asked that he be kept free pending appeal.
Several thousand opposition supporters gathered just outside the Kremlin to protest Navalny’s conviction and sentence.
The request to have him released during his appeal could be an attempt by officials to soothe public anger and to lend legitimacy to September’s mayoral race, which a Kremlin-backed incumbent is expected to win.
Navalny, a popular blogger and corruption-fighting lawyer, rose to rock star status among the opposition during a series of massive protests in Moscow against President Vladimir Putin’s re-election to a third presidential term in March 2012.
Sentencing Navalny is the latest move in a multipronged crackdown on dissent that followed Putin’s inauguration, including arrests of opposition activists and repressive legislation that sharply increased fines for participants in unsanctioned protests and imposed tough new restrictions on nongovernment organizations.
The Russian stock market, sensitive to politically charged issues, dove within minutes of the verdict, with the main MICEX index dropping 1.4 percent before partly recovering.
The conviction galvanized the opposition, which has been increasingly cornered by the Kremlin’s crackdown and weakened by internal rifts. A few hours after the verdict, thousands of activists gathered near Red Square, clapping hands and chanting “Freedom!” and “Putin is a thief!”
They briefly blocked traffic on busy Tverskaya avenue, shouting “This city is ours!” Police rounded up several dozen demonstrators, but didn’t move to disperse the rally, which lasted for hours.
The protesters stuck posters to advertising billboards that read: “Putin, you coward, come out!” and’ “Navalny to president, Putin to prison!” Activists handed out bright red stickers with similar slogans as many passing motorists blared horns in support.
The unsanctioned protest looked small compared to the massive anti-Putin demonstrations which attracted more than 100,000 in the fall of 2011 and the beginning of the following year. But unlike those protests, which were allowed by the authorities, the participants in Thursday’s rally braved the threat of heavy fines and prison sentences.
Several hundred demonstrators also rallied in Navalny’s support in St. Petersburg, and a few dozen were detained by police.
Navalny was found guilty Thursday of heading a group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from a state-owned company in 2009.