MOSCOW -- A Moscow court on Monday sent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to jail for 20 days for calling for an unsanctioned protest, which would keep him away from a major rally this weekend.
Police detained Navalny on Friday, preventing him from traveling to a rally in a major Russian city that had given its official permission to hold the gathering. Charges brought against the Kremlin's top rival relate to the upcoming rally in St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city and President Vladimir Putin's hometown, which has not been sanctioned.
After he announced his presidential bid last year, Navalny, arguably Russia's most popular opposition politician, inspired a grassroots campaign in Russian regions to support his nomination.
"20 days in jail. Old man Putin got so scared of our rallies in the regions and decided to make himself a little present for himself for his birthday," Navalny tweeted shortly after the ruling Monday evening.
The rally in St. Petersburg was scheduled for Saturday, which is also Putin's birthday.
A Russian law on public gatherings, which was hastily adopted following massive anti-government rallies in 2011-2012, carries 30 days in jail for repeated violations.
The Kremlin has dismissed Navalny, who has faced repeated jailings and criminal cases, as an urbanite out of touch with people living in Russia's 11 time zones where Putin draws his support from.
Yet that began to change earlier this year, when the 41-year-old lawyer opened campaign offices in 80 cities and towns. Most of those places had not seen a diverse political life for decades, and Navalny attracted thousands of supporters.