BERLIN Germany expressed shock on Thursday over the jailing of Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny, saying the trial showed Russia had moved further away from democracy.
Earlier, a court in the city of Kirov about 900 km (550 miles) northeast of Moscow sentenced Navalny to five years in jail for theft, an unexpectedly harsh punishment after a trial his supporters say was politically motivated.
"The nature of the trial and the tough sentence are further proof of the Russian legal system's lack of independence," said Markus Loening, the German government's representative for human rights who is affiliated to the foreign ministry.
"Russia has taken a further step back from democracy and the rule of law," he said in a statement, adding the verdict was a fresh blow to Russia's opposition and he demanded that Navalny be freed and given fair treatment in the next legal steps.
Germany has grown increasingly critical of Moscow's record on human rights and the rule of law under President Vladimir Putin, despite its reliance on Russian energy exports.
The European Union also voiced concern over the sentence against Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who helped stage the biggest protests against Putin since he took power in 2000.
The sentence means Navalny, 37, a powerful orator who has accused the authorities of being "swindlers and thieves", will be unable to run in September's race for Moscow mayor as he had planned or in Russia's next presidential election in 2018.
"Alexei Navalny must be able to take part in political life. I demand that Moscow authorities allow the expected protests and demonstrations against the verdict," said Loening.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers, editing by Gareth Jones)