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Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny on Thursday returned to Moscow a free man after a court in the northern Kirov region suspended his five-year penal colony sentence in a controversial fraud case.
Accompanied by his wife Yulia and co-accused Pyotr Ofitserov who was also allowed to walk free, Navalny arrived at Yaroslavsky railway station in Moscow on the night train from Kirov to a welcome of flowers and kisses from supporters.
The outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin has coined the slogan "Putin is a thief" and roused crowds at opposition rallies. The Kirov case was just the first to go to court of a number of criminal probes against him.
Looking relaxed and happy, Navalny did not make a comment to the media and drove off with his wife in a waiting car.
"Thank you everyone very much for meeting us at the station, it was nice to see old and new friends. Yulia also says hi to everyone and thanks for the flowers," he wrote on Twitter.
After arriving at the station, Ofitserov told AFP he was sure Navalny would continue in politics, even though he is barred from standing for office for the next five years, the length of his suspended sentence.
"I think he will. That's what I really respect him for: he is not afraid and if he makes up his mind, he'll go till the end," Ofitserov said.
The businessman and father of five who has appeared at rallies with Navalny said he now planned to step away from the political limelight.
"I will not do politics together with Navalny. One tandem (during the trial) was enough. I don't know if I will do politics at all, but I will be a civil activist for sure."
After the court's ruling on Wednesday, Navalny warned not to see the verdict as a victory, as the court left his conviction in place in the controversial embezzlement case he alleges was ordered by the Kremlin.
"However the decision was taken in reality, no one doubts that the court once again acted as an instrument to solve some political problem," Vedomosti business daily wrote in an editorial.
Experts said that under current Russian laws the verdict will disqualify Navalny for the entire five years of his suspended term, keeping him out of presidential elections in early 2018.
His participation in high-profile polls for Moscow city parliament next year is also ruled out. But his allies said he could work round this by fielding supporters who would run in some form of a pro-Navalny bloc.
"He himself cannot be on the list, but people from his team can take part. That's a less strong combination but fully realistic," opposition politician Boris Nemtsov told Kommersant business daily.
Navalny won 27 percent in September polls for Moscow mayor against a Kremlin-backed incumbent, proving himself as a serious political contender in the capital.
The Russian Constitutional Court this month ruled that a life ban on standing for office for those convicted of serious crimes was unconstitutional.
It said that the time limit on standing for office should correlate with the sentence, except in cases where there was danger to the public.
Like any other convict, Navalny will remain at risk of his suspended sentence being changed back to a term in a penal colony if he is deemed to have committed any offence during a probation period of five years.
"The authorities have got Navalny on the hook. At any moment, at any lapse, his suspended sentence can be switched back to a real one," wrote Vedomosti.