WASHINGTON A White House spokesman said on Thursday the United States is "deeply disappointed and concerned" at the conviction of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and called on Russia to allow an appeal and cease pressure on anti-corruption activists.
"Navalny's harsh prison sentence is the latest example of a disturbing trend aimed at suppressing dissent in civil society in Russia," White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a briefing.
Carney said charges of embezzlement against Navalny were "politically motivated," adding that the case reinforces U.S. concerns about the rule of law in Russia.
"We urge Russia to allow for a fair and impartial appeal of the verdict," Carney said.
Navalny was sentenced on Thursday to five years in jail for theft, an unexpectedly tough punishment. Pyotr Ofitserov, Navalny's co-defendant, was convicted as an accomplice and sentenced to four years in prison.
Navalny gained prominence as an anti-graft blogger and had submitted documents to register as a candidate for the Moscow mayoral election in September. He has also expressed presidential ambitions.
He had been accused of embezzling funds from a state timber company in 2009. He denies any wrongdoing.
Carney's condemnation of Russia's handling of the case comes as the United States hopes to win Russian cooperation in securing the return of former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed details of U.S. government surveillance programs.
U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person.
Snowden has been stranded at a Moscow airport since June 23. He has filed an application for temporary asylum in Russia, although the 30-year-old American has said he wants eventually to travel to Latin America.
The United States has asked Russia to expel Snowden, but Russia has so far refused to do so. U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have spoken by phone about the matter as recently as Friday.
In response to questions from journalists, the White House this week has deliberately left vague whether Obama will attend talks in Moscow with Putin ahead of a St. Petersburg summit in September with leaders of the Group of 20 nations.
(Reporting by Mark Felsenth; editing by Jackie Frank)