A court in Moscow jailed has seven opposition activists for their involvement in a 2012 protest that ended in violent clashes with law enforcers.
Driving home the message that Russian president Vladimir Putin will not tolerate dissent, police detained scores of demonstrators gathered outside the court in the Russian capital to show support for the defendants.
Judge Nataliya Nikishina handed prison terms of between two to four years to seven men charged with participating in mass riots and assaulting law enforcers at a rally in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on May 6th, 2012, the day before Mr Putin was sworn in for a third term as president. An eighth activist, who was the only woman on trial, received probation.
All the defendants had pleaded not guilty.
The May 6th rally marked the culmination of a wave of mainly peaceful anti-government demonstrations that erupted in Moscow in 2011-2012 after Mr Putin's United Russia party won a victory in a flawed parliamentary election.
The Kremlin has cracked down on civil activism in Mr Putin’s third term and the protest movement has fizzled out.
Summing up the Bolotnaya case yesterday, the judge said police had been justified in using force given that they were facing “mass riots” – a term in Russian law that defines protests where participants use firearms, Molotov cocktails or other dangerous devices.
Lyudmila Alekseeva, the veteran head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, criticised the judge, saying there was “no mass disorder” on May 6th. “It’s a lie! And the court knows it.”
Russian prosecutors had called for even harsher sentences of up to six years.
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister who is now an opposition leader, said the length of the sentences was immaterial. "Today is a tragic day. Innocent people are being sent to prison," he told The Irish Times.
Tensions were high outside the court as armed riot police wearing black helmets sealed off surrounding streets and urged people to clear out of the area.
Nonetheless, several hundred protesters gathered, waving banners and chanting “Freedom” in a show of support for the Bolotnaya defendants.
An elderly woman called from the window of an apartment block urging the crowd to "organise a Maidan", like the Ukrainian activists who, after three months of demonstrations in Kiev's Independence Square, have ousted Viktor Yanukovich as president.
Police rounded up more than 200 demonstrators during the course of the morning and incarcerated them in vans waiting near the court.
Many in Russia’s opposition believe the judge was acting under Kremlin orders and delayed delivery of the sentences until after Sunday’s closing of the Sochi Olympic games. They are braced for the Kremlin to further tighten the screws on civil dissent now that the prestigious international event is over.
Among those detained on Monday was Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger, who is himself serving a suspended sentence for theft. "Guess where I am?" Mr Navalny tweeted with biting humour from the back of a police van.
Other prominent anti-Putin activists taken into custody were Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, members of the Pussy Riot punk group who were released from prison under a sweeping amnesty at the end of last year.
The US state department issued a statement on Friday condemning the conviction of the Bolotnaya activists in what it said was a “politically motivated trial”. “We reiterate our serious concerns about the ongoing pressure on civil society in Russia,” it said.