Russian mayor who took on Kremlin party jailed before elections

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court sentenced a former mayor and vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin’s allies to 12 1/2 years in jail on Wednesday in a graft case the liberal opposition said was trumped up to end its fledgling success in the regions.

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A court in Yaroslavl, 250 km (156 miles) northeast of Moscow, sentenced Yevgeny Urlashov to serve his term in a maximum security prison after finding him guilty of accepting a bribe and of trying to extort another.

Footage of the courtroom sentencing, broadcast by the Dozhd TV station, showed Urlashov, 49, saying he had been framed.

“Everything will be different soon,” he shouted as he was led away by three uniformed men after hearing the sentence. “I have been tried for spitting in the face of United Russia. It’s a political order.”

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin ally, is the chairman of United Russia which has dominated Russian elections for over a decade. The Kremlin denies using the judiciary for political ends.

The sentence, handed down at a time when Russia is grinding its way through a prolonged economic crisis, comes just over a month before nationwide parliamentary elections which United Russia is expected to win comfortably.

The margin of its victory is expected to be slimmer than recent years however with some polls showing apathy levels are high. There are also some signs of Kremlin nervousness; it carried out a reshuffle of regional leaders last week in areas where dissatisfaction with living standards is above average.

Urlashov, who left United Russia after becoming disenchanted with it, beat the Kremlin’s candidate to become mayor of Yaroslavl in 2012 in what was seen as an important symbolic victory for the opposition after a series of large protests in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Just over a year later, in July 2013, Urlashov, who had campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, was dragged from his car late at night and accused of graft.

Shortly before his arrest, he had helped organize a rare protest meeting against United Russia where he had denounced the ruling party’s monopoly on power, mocked it, and said he wanted to challenge it for the region’s governorship.

“Urlashov was sentenced to 12 1/2 years for his attempt to take power away from the United Russia party in the regions,” Vladimir Milov, a former Russian deputy energy minister who is now an opposition campaigner, wrote in a blog on the Ekho Moskvy radio station’s website.

“There was not a single shred of evidence against him.”

The two men who accused Urlashov of offering to bribe them were both local politicians who at the time were representing United Russia.

Urlashov’s lawyer said she would appeal the sentence.

Editing by Richard Balmforth