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MOSCOW (AFP) – Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny was on Sunday preparing his campaign to challenge the pro-Kremlin elite in Moscow mayoral elections after returning home to a hero's welcome following his release from prison.
Navalny was on Thursday convicted in the northeastern city of Kirov in a fraud case that is widely seen as revenge for his daring to challenge President Vladimir Putin, and sentenced to five years in a penal colony.
But in a mysterious and sudden turn of events after thousands filled the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg to protest the verdict, the court on Friday released him pending his appeal of the conviction.
After being mobbed as a hero by hundreds of supporters when he returned to Moscow by train, Navalny immediately vowed to take part in the September 8 elections against pro-Kremlin incumbent Sergei Sobyanin and win.
"Our campaign headquarters is growing, we have more volunteers and I urge everyone to come and help us take part in real politics, a real battle for the people's votes in the elections," Navalny told independent Dozhd TV in an interview outside his headquarters late Saturday.
Supporters have already been active sticking up red Navalny stickers with the slogan "change Russia, starting with Moscow" across the Russian capital.
In new pressure on pro-Navalny activists, investigators have opened a criminal probe into vandalism during Thursday's protests when his supporters scrawled anti-Putin graffiti outside the State Duma parliament.
Navalny said he did not fear the possibility that he will still be detained after his appeal or the risk that he and his supporters could face more criminal cases against them.
He was found guilty of defrauding the government in the Kirov region of 16 million rubles ($500,000, 376,000 euros) in a timber deal while acting as an advisor to the local authorities in 2009.
"If you are scared of the wolves, then don't go into the woods," he told Dozhd.
Navalny late Saturday went to a Moscow detention centre to visit Vsevolod Matveyev, an ordinary Muscovite who was given an administrative punishment of 15 days in jail for blocking Moscow's main Tverskaya thoroughfare with his car during Thursday's protest.
Navalny's conviction disqualifies him from politics but the restriction will only come into force if the verdict is upheld on appeal. In the meantime, Navalny says he will plough on with his campaign.
"I could be arrested before the elections, after the elections... But if you constantly think about this, then you will never be able to achieve anything," he added.
The Kremlin has insisted the legal process is taking its course in the Navalny case but few commentators believe the sudden decision to allow Putin's most significant foe to go free was taken by an independent judiciary.
Some observers have suggested his release shows a split within the elite, with hardliners close to Putin like Kremlin first deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin wanting to see Navalny behind bars, and more moderate voices like Sobyanin believing he should be free to take part in the elections.
Whatever the reason, his release gave a priceless propaganda gift to Navalny, who insisted that the Kremlin had changed tack after being rattled by the protests late Thursday.
He pumped his fist in the air and addressed supporters through a megaphone after returning to Moscow by train, a powerful image in a country where figures like Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Solzhenitsyn made iconic returns home by train.
While Navalny has promised supporters that he will win the election, he faces an uphill battle to make an impact even in his urban stronghold of Moscow.
A poll by the independent Levada Centre before the Kirov verdict said that Navalny was set to score just eight percent and Sobyanin due to romp home with 78 percent.