MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a lower court's decision to hand Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny a suspended five year sentence, raising supporters' hopes he might be able to run in the next presidential election.
A lower court had found Navalny and an associate guilty of embezzling funds from a timber firm in the Kirov region and in 2013 sentenced him to five years in jail, a sentence that was later suspended on appeal.
Navalny said the original ruling was politically-motivated and designed to prevent him from taking part in elections. Russia faces a presidential election in 2018 when Vladimir Putin is widely expected to run for a fourth term.
Navalny's supporters want him to run against Putin, though opinion polls show he has substantially less backing among voters than the president.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in February that Navalny's right to a fair trial had been violated. On Wednesday, Russia's Supreme Court, taking that into account, annulled the original sentence and sent the case back to a lower court for review.
Navalny's lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, told Reuters that the Supreme Court's decision meant her client was now free to take part in elections again. Russian law bans anyone convicted of a serious crime of running in elections.
Navalny was more cautious, saying the decision looked like a ruse to force him to attend court hearings in the Kirov region where the original trial was heard.
"Formally, they should have annulled the (entire) case, but they have sent it back to be looked at again," he said.
"They are hindering my political activity. I should have been cleared."
(Reporting by Svetlana Reiter; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)