Russian police on Friday detained almost 200 people who staged a demonstration in support of eight activists found guilty of inciting riots and violence against police during protests against president Vladimir Putin two years ago.
The guilty verdict and mass detentions underline the Russian government’s apprehension at the possibility that popular unrest could spiral out of control in the same way it has in neighbouring Ukraine.
The individuals on trial in the Zamoskvoretsky district court in Moscow were arrested during a demonstration in the city’s Bolotnaya Square in May 2012, on the eve of Mr Putin’s inauguration for his third presidential term. The rally was part of a broad-based movement against the return of Mr Putin to the presidential office and the gradual concentration of power in his hands. The opposition movement against the president has since lost steam.
A total of 29 protesters were arrested that day but 11 were released as part of a large-scale amnesty and others are still awaiting trial. Prosecutors had asked for prison sentences of up to six years for the eight defendants on trial. Sentencing was postponed until Monday, the day after the close of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Human rights groups say the charges in the Bolotnaya case are trumped-up and accuse the security forces of beating demonstrators with clubs. One of the defendants was accused of throwing a lemon at a policeman.
But Mr Putin’s administration has insisted that any resistance against the police risks undermining the state’s authority and destroying the stability that Mr Putin prides himself in having brought to Russia.
One government official said the Bolotnaya case was part of a series of foreign-instigated protest movements that had ended in disaster in other countries.
“First Iraq, then Libya, then Syria, and now Ukraine,” he said. “In Kiev, the government should have stopped things in the very beginning, like we did in Bolotnaya Square.”