MOSCOW: Hundreds of people, some waving white roses, met Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny off the train in Moscow on Saturday, a day after he was freed on bail pending appeal of his five-year jail sentence.
Navalny, who says his embezzlement conviction was politically motivated due to his outspoken criticism of President Vladimir Putin, told supporters it was thanks to their pressure that he had been released.
"You have ruined and destroyed the main privilege that the Kremlin is trying to capture ... to take a man under guard right from the court room (to jail)," Navalny told the crowd, amid a heavy police presence.
"You have made it possible to release these men the next day," he said, referring to himself and Pyotr Ofitserov, who was sentenced to four years as his accomplice.
"Compared to that, it is easy to win elections," he said.
Navalny, a 37-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption blogger, plans to run for mayor in a Moscow election on Sept. 8 against Sergei Sobyanin, a close Putin ally seeking a fresh term.
His supporters say the decision to release him is an effort by Russian authorities to legitimise the election that Sobyanin looks likely to win. Navalny's support is mostly limited to the urban middle-class and youth.
The crowd applauded a tired-looking Navalny as he stepped off the overnight train from the city of Kirov. They chanted: "Navalny is our mayor" and "We represent the power."
But it remains unclear if Navalny, freed pending an appeal that should wrap up in late August, will be able to run in the Moscow election or any other under Russian law that bars convicted criminal from elected office.
Opposition activists say Navalny's sentencing is an example of an intensifying crackdown on dissent since Putin returned to presidency for a third term in May, 2012.
The Kremlin denies clamping down on critics or using the courts to persecute them. Putin remains Russia's most popular politician despite the largest wave of street protests against his 13-year rule.