Putin critic Alexei Navalny barred from Russian presidential election

MOSCOW, Dec 25 (Reuters) - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was barred on Monday from running in next year's presidential election after officials ruled he was ineligible to take part due to a suspended prison sentence he says was trumped up.

The decision by the central election commission was widely expected as election officials had repeatedly declared Navalny would be ineligible to run. Twelve members of the 13-member commission voted to bar Navalny. One member abstained, citing a possible conflict of interest.

Navalny, 41, who polls show would struggle to beat incumbent Vladimir Putin in the March election, said he would appeal and called on his supporters to boycott the election and campaign against it being held.

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Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny attends a march in central Saint Petersburg on February 25, 2012. Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny led thousands through the streets of Vladimir Putin's native city demonstrating against his likely return to the Kremlin in March 4 polls. AFP PHOTO/ OLGA MALTSEVA (Photo credit should read OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian protest leader Alexei Navalny stands outside a court in the provincial northern city of Kirov on April 24, 2013. A Russian court in Kirov reopened today the trial of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is accused of embezzlement and may face up to a decade in jail if convicted. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russia's top opposition leader Alexei Navalny (L), flanked by his wife Yulia (R), addresses supporters and journalists upon his arrival in a Moscow's railway station on July 20, 2013. Navalny told hundreds of cheering supporters on Saturday that he would push ahead with his bid to become Moscow mayor after his surprise release from jail pending an appeal of an embezzlement conviction. AFP PHOTO / VASILY MAXIMOV (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
One of Russian protest movement leaders, Alexei Navalny, speaks as he arrives for the hearing of his case in a court in Moscow, on February 28, 2014. A Moscow court ordered today Navalny to be placed under house arrest after a request from investigators probing an alleged embezzlement case. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 27: Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny attends a march on the anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia on February 27, 2016. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 30, 2017: Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny appears at the Moscow City Court for a hearing into his appeal against a 15-day detention order. Navalny was detained at an unauthorized anti-corruption rally in Moscow on March 26, 2017. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23, 2017: Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny speaks during a meeting with Vladivostok residents. Yuri Smityuk/TASS (Photo by Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images)
VLADIVOSTOK, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23, 2017: Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny speaks during a meeting with Vladivostok residents. Yuri Smityuk/TASS (Photo by Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Images)
IZHEVSK, RUSSIA - NOVEMBER 11, 2017: Opposition activist Alexei Navalny meets with his supporters in central Izhevsk, Republic of Udmurtia, Russia during his presidential election campaign. Yegor Aleyev/TASS (Photo by Yegor Aleyev\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA DECEMBER 24, 2017: Opposition activist Alexei Navalny meets with his supporters as he announces his decision to run in the 2018 Russian presidential election. Sergei Fadeichev/TASS (Photo by Sergei Fadeichev\TASS via Getty Images)
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a meeting to uphold his bid for presidential candidate, in Moscow, Russia December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
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"We knew this could happen, and so we have a straight-forward, clear plan," Navalny said in a pre-recorded video released immediately after the decision.

"We announce a boycott of the election. The process in which we are called to participate is not a real election. It will feature only Putin and the candidates which he has personally selected."

Navalny said he would use his campaign headquarters across Russia to support the boycott and monitor turnout on voting day, March 18.

Polls show Putin, 65, who has dominated Russia's political landscape for the last 17 years, is on course to be comfortably re-elected, making him eligible to serve another six years until 2024, when he turns 72.

Allies laud Putin as a father-of-the-nation figure who has restored national pride and expanded Moscow's global clout with interventions in Syria and Ukraine.

Navalny says Putin's support is exaggerated and artificially maintained by a biased state media and an unfair system. He says he could defeat him in a fair election, an assertion Putin's supporters have said is laughable.

'DO THE RIGHT THING'

Before the commission voted, Navalny, dressed in a dark suit, had demanded he be allowed to take part in the election delivering a speech that angered election officials.

In one heated exchange, he said Russian voters' faith in the system hung in the balance.

"If you do not allow me to run, you are taking a decision against millions of people who are demanding that Navalny take part," he said, referring to himself in the first person.

"You are not robots, you are living, breathing human beings you are an independent body ... for once in your lives, do the right thing," he said.

His supporters clapped him, but officials were unmoved.

Boris Ebzeev, one of the officials, said: "We're talking about the law and abiding by the law."

Ebzeev said there could not be "the slightest doubt" that Navalny was ineligible to run, a reference to Russia's constitution that bars him running because of his suspended sentence relating to an embezzlement case.

Navalny has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and says the case is politically motivated.

There had been some speculation prior to the decision among the opposition that Navalny might be allowed to run in order to inject more interest into what looks like a predictable contest amid Kremlin fears that apathetic voters might not bother to vote.

Navalny has been jailed three times this year and charged with breaking the law by repeatedly organizing public meetings and rallies. (Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Writing by Polina Ivanova and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Edmund Blair)

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