The energetic Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who was jailed for five years just 24 hours ago after a deeply controversial trial, has been freed in a shock decision by prosecutors.
Navalny, a social media rock star and prospective Mayor of Moscow, has been a fierce anti-corruption whistleblower since 2010, but was imprisoned on Thursday for embezzlement in what critics believe were politically-motivated charges.
Last night, prosecutors asked the Kirov Regional Court to consider freeing Navalny on bail, pending his intended appeal, because it would deprive him of the right to stand for elections.
Around 3,000 protesters stormed central Moscow last night, contained by riot police and Interior Ministry troops, who arrested around 60 opposition activists and closed off Manezh Square and Red Square in the capital.
Three judges in the Kirov Regional Court decided that, because of good behaviour while on previous bail, Navalny should allowed to await the appeal decision at home in Moscow.
Embracing his wife Yulia, Navalny grinned at the packed courtroom and walked out through a media scrum, vowing to pursue his candidacy for Moscow mayor. "I am standing here, under the blue sky, I can see no bars across it, and that's because of you," he said.
"It may be only temporary, but let's use the time to whack some more crooks," he tweeted as he left the courtroom.
His co-accused Pyotr Ofitserov, jailed for four years, was also immediately released.
Many of his supporters suspect that the shock release was an attempt to soothe public anger and prevent further disorder on the streets.
But others on social media have suggested that the Kremlin is keen to see Navalny fail to live up to expectations in the Mayoral elections, hoping that Navalny will fail to turn his youthful appeal into actual votes.
Navalny released - pending appeal. Did the protests and trending anti-Putin material online make them do this? It makes them look very weak.— Ben Judah (@b_judah) July 19, 2013
Will #Navalny get significant portion of Moscow mayor vote? Or is the Kremlin right in calculating he will flop? (2of2)— Courtney Weaver (@courtneymoscow) July 19, 2013
According to polls conducted by the Levada Centre, out of those who recognize Navalny, 14% would either "definitely" or "probably" support his presidential run. On the other hand, 66% of those who recognize Navalny said they would never support his presidential bid.