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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union voiced concern on Thursday at a five-year jail term handed down to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, saying the trial raised serious questions about rule of law in Russia.
Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who helped stage the biggest protests against President Vladimir Putin since he took power in 2000, was found guilty of organizing a scheme to steal at least 16 million roubles ($494,000) from a local timber firm when he was advising the Kirov region governor in 2009.
He denied the charges, saying they were trumped up by Putin to silence him. The five year term, criticized as excessive by some analysts, will stop him from running in a presidential election in 2018 and for Moscow mayor in September.
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was concerned about the guilty verdicts and prison sentences imposed on Navalny and co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov.
Ofitserov, a father of five, was sentenced to four years in prison for being an accomplice.
"The charges against them have not been substantiated during the trial," the spokesman said.
Civil society has a vital role to play in exposing wrongdoing and defending human rights in Russia, and it should not be stifled, he said.
"This outcome, given the procedural shortcomings, raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia. (Ashton) hopes that their sentences will be reconsidered in the appeal process," he added.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; editing by Elizabeth Piper)