Russia arrests 200 as court convicts anti-Putin protesters
MOSCOW - Agence France-Presse
Police detain protesters outside a courthouse in Moscow February 21, 2014. REUTERS PhotoTwo hundred people were arrested Friday near a Moscow court as it convicted eight defendants of mass riots and attacking police at a protest against President Vladimir Putin, a case widely seen as a crackdown on dissent.
The eight defendants were found guilty of participating in mass riots and hitting policemen at an opposition rally the day before Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012.
The guilty verdict came during the showpiece Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, which Putin helped bring to Russia for the first time.
Around 1,000 supporters of the activists gathered outside the Zamoskvoretsky district court ahead of the ruling.
Police did not allow anyone except family members and journalists to enter the court and detained those who unfurled posters and flags or chanted in protest.
Around 200 people were detained over several hours, a spokesman for Moscow police said. An AFP correspondent saw dozens being detained and put in police vans for shouting or even just carrying balloons.
Opposition figures such as protest leader Alexei Navalny and two recently released members of protest punk band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, came to the trial and stood on the street after being denied entry.
Prosecutors have asked for prison sentences of up to six years for the eight defendants, terms called disproportionately harsh by the defence team and human rights organisations.
"Today's guilty verdict against defendants in the Bolotnaya Square protest trial is a hideous injustice," Amnesty International said in a statement, calling it a "show trial".
The trial was adjourned and the sentencing was scheduled to continue on Monday -- one day after the Winter Olympic Games close.
Tens of thousands of people marched through central Moscow in a demonstration on May 6, 2012 to protest against Putin's third term. The rally ended in scuffles with police on central Bolotnaya square.
Most of those on trial have been in custody since 2012. The trial is seen by many as a symbol of Putin's crackdown on dissent.
The trial previously included 12 people but four were released after qualifying for a Kremlin-backed general amnesty in December because they faced a lesser charge.
Of the remaining eight, Sergei Krivov, 52, and Alexandra Naumova, 20, face the harshest punishment after prosecutors in December requested they be jailed for six years.
Also facing prison terms are protesters Andrei Barabanov, Alexander Polikhovich, Artyom Savyolov, Stepan Zimin, Denis Lutskevich and Artyom Belousov.
Opposition observers have said the probe into the events seemingly picked out the suspects at random and that reports of police beatings at the rally were never investigated.
"I was (at the protest) and... any one of us could be on trial right now, it is terrible," said Nina, a middle-aged woman standing in the crowd outside the courthouse.
The mass riot probe has already seen one person sentenced to four-and-a-half years on similar charges and a second committed to a psychiatric hospital.
The Bolotnaya clashes led to dozens of arrests and injuries on both sides. Investigators have said the opposition planned to overthrow the government and destabilise the country.
Prosecutors said 82 people were injured. A massive probe into the events has split off into several different cases including a total of about 30 people.
The defence said video footage used by the prosecution in the current trial was often inconclusive and the case was based predominantly on conflicting police testimony, with some officers denying they were injured.
One of the defendants, Belousov, has been found guilty of throwing a lemon at riot police.