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Russia seeks suspended sentence for opposition leader Alexei Navalny

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian prosecutors said on Friday they were seeking a suspended five-year sentence for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is on trial for embezzlement, a punishment that would stop him from running for the presidency in 2018.

Russian opposition figure and anti-graft campaigner Alexei Navalny is seen during on air at the Ekho Moskvy radio station in Moscow, Russia, December 14, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Navalny, who denies wrongdoing and says the case is politically-motivated, has said he intends to challenge Vladimir Putin at next year’s presidential election. Putin is expected to run, but has not yet said whether he will take part or not.

Navalny’s supporters want him to stand against Putin, though opinion polls show he has substantially less backing among voters than the president.

Russian law bans anyone convicted of a serious crime of running in elections. Judges in Russian courts have a track record of handing out the same sentences as prosecutors ask for.

Russia’s Supreme Court struck down an earlier decision by a lower court to hand Navalny a suspended five year sentence in the same case last year -- a move that left him free to participate in the election. .

The Supreme Court then sent the case back for retrial in Russia’s Kirov region to the same court that found Navalny and an associate guilty of embezzling funds from a timber firm in 2013.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that Navalny’s right to a fair trial had been violated during the first trial.

Prosecutors said on Friday they wanted the same suspended sentence for Navalny this time round too.

“What prosecutors just said is a message for me that means: Alexei, you are not allowed to take part in the elections,” Navalny said in court.

“Thanks, but no. My election campaign will continue. We will get this sentence annulled well before the start of the campaign”, Navalny, who is due to open his first campaign office in St.Petersburg on Saturday, told the court.

The court is due to announce its verdict on Feb. 8.

“Justice should triumph. Navalny and I will challenge the verdict (if it is guilty) at The European Court of Human Rights”, Pyotr Ofitserov, Navalny’s co-defendant, told Reuters.

(Refiles to fix spelling of Navalny’s co-defendant in last graph.)

Reporting by Denis Pinchuk and Sveta Reiter, Writing by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Andrew Osborn