MOSCOW – A Russian court on Monday handed down prison sentences of up to four years to seven protesters demonstrating against the rule of President Vladimir Putin, including a 22-year-old student who investigators said threw an “unidentified yellow object of spherical shape” at a line of riot police. He insisted it was just a lemon.
Yaroslav Belousov and the six others were among 28 people rounded up after a 2012 protest on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for a third presidential term. Clashes broke out after police restricted access to Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin, where the protesters had permission to gather.
Hundreds of their supporters gathered outside the courtroom to condemn the trial and the Kremlin’s crackdown on the opposition since Putin returned to the presidency. As the judge read out sentences, chants of “Shame!” drifted into the courtroom.
About 200 people, including two members of the punk band Pussy Riot who spent nearly two years in prison for their own anti-Putin protest, were briefly detained by police outside court.
Some of them, including members of Pussy Riot and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were later detained again later Monday when protesters attempted to hold an unsanctioned rally outside the Kremlin.
Moscow police said they detained 420 of about 500 demonstrators there.
The lawyer for Belousov, who was sentenced to 2½ years in prison, said he believes the harsh punishment was in part a Kremlin reaction to the upheaval in neighboring Ukraine.
“I get tons of Twitter messages that say: You must be punished for Maidan, you must go to jail for Maidan,” lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky said, referring to the square in Kiev that became a symbol of Ukraine’s protest movement.
When Russian state television reported on the trial, it often showed footage of the 2012 Moscow protest alongside bloody images of beaten protesters and police in Ukraine.
“With the events on the Maidan as a background, it’s even more obvious what all of this could have led to, had it not been for the government’s clear, tough response,” an anchor on Rossiya television said last week.
An eighth defendant, 20-year-old Anastasia Dukhanina, received a suspended sentence. She had been held under house arrest pending trial, while the seven others have already been in custody for nearly two years.
Belousov was detained the day of the May 6, 2012, protest and quickly released along with several hundred others. He was taken into custody one month later.