Moscow (AFP) - Russia on Wednesday overturned a criminal conviction against opposition politician Alexei Navalny following a European court decision, but ruled he must face a fresh trial.
The high-profile anti-corruption blogger and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin was convicted of embezzlement in 2013 along with a businessman associate in a trial he and his supporters see as politically motivated.
Navalny received a five-year suspended sentence after a lengthy trial in the central Russian city of Kirov.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled in February that the men were deprived of a fair trial and convicted over "acts indistinguishable from regular commercial activities."
It told Russia to pay damages of 8,000 euros ($8,600) to each defendant and cover legal costs.
Russia's Supreme Court on Wednesday quashed the earlier convictions but sent their case back for retrial, meaning Navalny, who has declared his intention to run for president in 2018, could face a lengthy new trial and possibly another conviction.
"After the Supreme Court decision, Navalny could go to a penal colony," wrote pro-Kremlin site Life News.
- Right to stand for office -
On his website Navalny said he was "categorically not satisfied" with the ruling, and that the court "should have closed the case since no crime was committed."
"Instead, they sent the case for a new hearing," he said, suggesting this was done "so I can't do political activities."
"Now I am not convicted on serious charges and have the right to take part in elections," Navalny wrote.
The firebrand politician has declared his intention to stand for president in 2018 polls that Putin is expected to contest.
Asked to comment, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists: "It's a long time till the elections. This issue is not on our agenda."
Navalny was the star leader of mass protests in 2011 and 2012 over Putin's return to the Kremlin as president, and coined the slogan "Putin is a thief." He came second in Moscow's mayor race in 2013.
In the same year, he was first sentenced to five years in a penal colony but the verdict was changed to a suspended sentence on appeal.
He has been targeted in a number of legal probes and spent months under house arrest.
He has another less serious conviction from 2014 from a controversial trial which he faced with his brother Oleg, involving French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. His brother is currently serving a prison sentence.
After being convicted in Kirov, Navalny was forced to step back from politics but he and his associates publish widely-discussed investigative reports exposing and ridiculing the secret luxurious lifestyles of top Russian officials.
Navalny said he would appeal Wednesday's Supreme Court decision to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which looks into failures to carry out ECHR decisions.
Navalny's lawyer Vadim Kobzev told AFP: "The meaning of today's decision is that there will be a repeat trial, everything will start again from a court in Kirov."
Navalny now is "formally not convicted over this case," Kobzev confirmed, attributing the Supreme Court's decision to the absence of clear procedures on European rulings.
There is now a possibility that "in a new trial, they will be cleared," he said.
"If they convict them again and find them guilty, this will be ignoring the European Court of Human Rights."
Russia in 2015 passed a law that allows it to reject decisions made by international rights courts, allowing it to snub the European Court of Human Rights.