A court in Moscow yesterday convicted eight defendants in the so-called Bolotnaya trial of rioting and assaulting police at a protest on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration to a third term as Russian president in 2012.
Russian prosecutors have asked for up to six-year prison terms for the protesters, but the judge postponed sentencing until Monday, the day after the Winter Olympics close in Sochi.
The Bolotnaya trial, named after Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, where the protest took place, has dragged on since the summer of 2012 and has become symbolic of a crackdown on dissent in Mr Putin’s third term.
'Russia without Putin'
Tens of hundreds of protesters gathered outside the court yesterday chanting "Freedom" and "Russia without Putin".
Riot police waded into the crowd, conducting multiple and apparently random arrests.
The Bolotnaya defendants became caught up in violence that erupted at a protest on Bolotnaya Square on May 6th, 2012, the day before Mr Putin was sworn in. Defence lawyers in the trial that began last June claimed that police had provoked the unrest and fabricated evidence that they came under attack.
Human rights groups criticised the guilty verdict yesterday as a politically motivated miscarriage of justice.
“The verdict is absolutely unacceptable. It punishes peaceful protesters,” said Karim Lahidji, president of the International Federation for Human Rights. “The prosecutors failed to prove that the events of May 6th amount to mass riots.”
The Bolotnaya defendants were “victims of a politically motivated show trial”, Amnesty International said in a statement.
“The Bolotnaya trial has not exposed orchestrated violence, but rather a criminal justice system that is entirely malleable to the dictates of its political masters.”
A wave of protests that broke out in Moscow after a flawed parliamentary election in December 2011 has fizzled out since the Bolotnaya arrests. In the meantime, the Russian parliament has tightened legislation restricting public assembly and free speech.
Four of the Bolotnaya defendants were pardoned in a sweeping amnesty in December that appeared designed to allay international criticism of Russia’s deteriorating human rights record ahead of the Sochi Olympics.
Mr Putin has said he is not against peaceful protests, but violence against law enforcers cannot go unpunished.
Riot police were out in force yesterday as an estimated 1,000 people gathered outside the court to show support for the defendants. Before long the police began detaining protesters, beginning with two men in cockerel costumes.
Someone released a flock of doves into the air, another a clutch of white balloons with a banner proclaiming “Freedom for the Heroes of May 6th”.
Among those taken to waiting police vans were two Bolotnaya defendants, Vladimir Akimenkov and Maria Baronova, who were pardoned in the December amnesty.
Boris Nemtsov, co-chairman of the People’s Freedom Party, said the Bolotnaya trial had been staged to frighten people. “Putin has given a signal to people to stay quietly at home and not join street protests.”
A spokesman at the Russian interior ministry told Interfax that 200 people had been detained outside the court for “attempting to cause a public disturbance”. Many of them were released later yesterday, but could face fines of up to €600.