Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday escaped being sent to a penal colony on controversial charges he claims were ordered by the Kremlin after a court converted his five-year sentence into a suspended term.
President Vladimir Putin's top critic walked free from court after the appeal verdict, although the embezzlement conviction that disqualifies him from politics remains in place.
The decision by a regional court in the northern Kirov region came after Navalny made a surprisingly robust showing in the Moscow mayor election in September, coming second behind the Putin loyalist Sergei Sobyanin.
Navalny's co-accused Pyotr Ofitserov, who was previously sentenced to four years in a penal colony, also received a suspended sentence.
Analysts said the ruling could have been prompted by fears of Navalny's capacity to mobilise street protests that could have shaken the Kremlin if he had been sent to jail.
Several thousand took to the streets of Moscow after his five-year sentence was announced in July.
"There was enough pressure that forced the authorities to free us at least for a time," Navalny said after the ruling while visiting an exhibition of sketches done at trials of activists by opposition supporters.
"It is all absolutely obvious that all the decisions, first on the real sentence and the change now to suspended, are taken definitely not here but personally by Vladimir Putin," Navalny said in court after the ruling.
"I have not the faintest idea what is going on in his head, why he changes his decision," he added, to applause from his supporters.
With his conviction confirmed, Navalny is barred from standing for office in the foreseeable future. But he defiantly vowed to carry on the battle against Putin and his allies.
"It is absolutely clear they will not manage to push out me and my colleagues from this political fight. We will continue," he said in court before hugging his wife.
Navalny, who also faces several other criminal probes, said he would appeal the conviction.
Writing later on his blog, Navalny said it would be strange to call Wednesday's decision a victory. "I am not going to be able to run for office," he said.
'He has many backers'
Wednesday's hearing was uncharacteristically swift, with Navalny saying he saw no sense in participating in debates. The judge said the reasoning for the decision would be presented on Thursday.
A member of the Kremlin's rights council said the suspended sentence might qualify Navalny for an amnesty the Kremlin is considering to mark the 20th anniversary of Russia's post-Soviet constitution in December.
"A reversal to a suspended sentence matters in this case," Mara Polyakova told AFP.
Wearing his trademark uniform of tie-less shirt with sleeves rolled up, Navalny sat on the defendants' bench typing into an Apple laptop with a "Putin -- thief" sticker on the back.
A charismatic 37-year-old lawyer, Navalny won 27 percent of the vote in Moscow mayoral polls thanks to a populist campaign that played on anti-migrant moods and weariness with widespread corruption.
Navalny charged the Moscow authorities had skewed the vote in favour of Sobyanin to avoid a humiliating second round run-off.
In July, Kirov's Lenin district court found Navalny and Ofitserov guilty of embezzlement over a 2009 timber deal and ordered their immediate arrest.
But in a surprise decision, Kirov's regional court freed them the next day, arguing they should remain free pending their appeal. The unprecedented move allowed Navalny to run for Moscow mayor and he attended the appeal as a free man.
Many said the court reversed the sentence after Navalny's success at the ballot box due to fears his jailing could lead to street protests.
"This has nothing to do with democratisation or a loosening of the grip," wrote opposition figure Ksenia Sobchak, referring to the ruling.
"He has many backers, they would have come out in his support, therefore the term has been changed to suspended," added Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Kremlin-connected analyst, saying from now on he would walk on thin ice.
"If he slips, there will be a detention, an arrest and a real term," she told AFP.
Navalny rose to political stardom at mass protests in the winter of 2011/2012 against Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term.