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Published: Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 10:26:34 PM
Updated: Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 10:26:34 PM

Russian police detain protesters outside trial over anti-Putin rally

Police detain a protester outside a courthouse in Moscow February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

Police detain a protester outside a courthouse in Moscow February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian riot police detained over a hundred protesters on Monday at a Moscow courthouse where seven opponents of President Vladimir Putin were jailed from two and a half to four years over a demonstration that turned violent.

The protesters, who blame police for the violence in central Moscow in 2012, demanded the release of the defendants and shouted "shame" and "Maidan" - a reference to the Kiev square that has been the focus of protests that brought the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

Among those detained were two members of the punk protest band Pussy Riot, released in December near the end of two-year sentences for their own anti-Putin protest in Moscow's main cathedral in 2012. Alexei Navalny, who emerged from a wave of protests that year as the top opposition leader, was also held.

Relatives and lawyers of the seven said they believed the upheaval in neighbouring Ukraine, where police were among the dead in a conflict the Kremlin blames on opposition leaders and the West, had prompted the court to impose prison sentences as a signal that such actions would not be tolerated in Russia.

A Russian state TV news show host linked the trial with the events in Ukraine in a broadcast on Sunday, saying the bloodshed that killed at least 82 people in Kiev last week had started with actions similar to the 2012 anti-Putin protest.

Defence lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky said he would appeal his client Yaroslav Belousov's two-and-a-half-year prison sentence.

"These sentences are cruel and wrong. They were handed down because of the political situation...We hope our appeal will show that they made a mistake and the defendants won't have to answer for the Maidan."

An eighth defendant was given a suspended sentence that allows her to avoid jail, but the rulings caused outrage among Kremlin critics who see the prisoners as victims of a clampdown on dissent during Putin's third term as president.

Opposition activists said more than 230 people were detained by riot police grabbing protesters and dragging them to waiting buses. Police put the figure at more than 100.

The judge on Friday had found the defendants guilty of rioting and attacking police at a protest on May 6, 2012, the day before Putin, in power since 2000, returned to the presidency after a stint as prime minister.

The defendants - seven men and a woman, most of them in their 20s - blame police for the clashes that erupted and pleaded not guilty. The men have been in custody since 2012.

EVENING DEMONSTRATION AT KREMLIN

The sentences are likely to draw criticism from the United States and European countries that have expressed concern about the "Bolotnaya" trial - after the square in which they took place - and have accused Russia of restricting the freedom of assembly and expression.

Government opponents called for a protest on Manezh Square just outside the Kremlin later on Monday. Police mounted a major presence on the square ahead of the planned protest.

"Whoever has been released: you have two hours to rest, but be at the Manezh at 7 p.m.," Pyotr Verzilov, husband of Pussy Riot band member Tolokonnikova, said on Twitter.

But even with a jolt of inspiration from the protests that put Ukraine's Russian-backed president to rout, Putin's opponents would face an uphill battle in reviving the sustained street demonstrations that alarmed the Kremlin when they erupted after a disputed parliamentary election in 2011.

Putin remains by far the most popular politician in Russia.

Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina tweeted a photo of her and fellow activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova with the wire-mesh window of a police van as backdrop. She said fellow protesters had prevented police grabbing them five times before they were finally detained.

Putin engineered the release of Pussy Riot in an amnesty and freed long-jailed ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky with a pardon in December, moves widely seen as an effort to improve his image before the 2014 Winter Olympics, a major prestige project that ended on Sunday in Sochi.

After reading part of the verdict on Friday, trial judge Natalya Nikishina abruptly called a break until Monday, stirring speculation the Kremlin wanted to keep the sentences under wraps until after the Olympic closing ceremony.

Putin denies interfering in court cases, but has said anyone who attacks police must be punished.

His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on the verdict or sentences, saying it would be inappropriate to do so. He said that like all Russian convicts, the protesters had the right to seek a pardon from Putin.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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