A prominent foe of Vladimir Putin won an unexpected judicial respite on Monday when a Moscow court questioned a theft case he sees as the president's revenge for his activism and sent it back to prosecutors for overhaul.
The ruling means the second trial of Alexei Navalny, who is serving a five-year suspended sentence on a 2013 theft, will be put off until prosecutors remove flaws in their case.
But it leaves plenty of pressure on Navalny, who is under house arrest and is barred from seeking office for years due to the conviction. An avid blogger who built his reputation with an on-line campaign against state corruption, he is prohibited from blogging but has supporters posting on his behalf.
Navalny said he had no doubt the trial would eventually go ahead. "The court and the prosecutors are just being extra-careful," state-run news agency Rapsi quoted Navalny as saying.
Navalny, a leader of protests that shook the Kremlin in 2011-2012, could be jailed for years if found guilty of stealing more than 30 million roubles ($832,700) from two companies, one of them an affiliate of French cosmetics firm Yves Rocher. He and his brother Oleg, who is also charged, deny guilt.
Putting off the trial removes a cause for protests in Russia and for Western criticism at a time when Moscow's relations with the United States and European Union are badly strained over the turmoil in Ukraine and Russia's annexation of the Crimea region last month.
The judge's ruling granting Navalny's motion to return the case to prosecutors came at a preliminary hearing on the same day that the United States imposed new sanctions on several Russian officials and companies close to Putin over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis.
($1 = 36.0280 Russian Roubles)
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by Ralph Boulton)