Moscow - Russian riot police detained over a hundred protesters on Monday outside a Moscow courthouse where a judge was expected to sentence eight defendants convicted of attacking police at a 2012 demonstration against President Vladimir Putin.
Demonstrators shouted “Maidan” - a reference to the square in Ukraine's capital at the heart of anti-government protests that have driven President Viktor Yanukovich from power - and called the Russian police “Berkut” after the UKrainian riot police that battled protesters in Kiev.
Relatives of the defendants fear upheaval in Ukraine, where police officers were among the dead in a conflict the Kremlin blames on opposition leaders and the West, would prompt the Russian court to send a firm signal by imposing long sentences.
Hundreds came to support the defendants in the “Bolotnaya” case whom Kremlin critics see as victims of a clampdown on dissent during Putin's third term.
The judge on Friday 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 blame police for the clashes that erupted at the rally and pleaded not guilty.
As the judge continued reading the verdict on Monday in the courtroom, where the male defendants were handcuffed in a cage, camouflage-clad riot police with batons pushed into the crowd outside, barred from approaching the court by metal barriers, and seized demonstrators one by one.
Moscow police said more than 100 people were detained for attempts to violate public order, according to Interfax news agency. Opposition activists said the number was more than 140.
Among those detained was Alexei Navalny, who emerged from a series of street protests in 2011-2012 as the top opposition leader. He is serving a five-year suspended sentence on a theft conviction he says was Kremlin revenge for challenging Putin.
“They have put me in an avtozak,” Navalny said on Twitter, referring to one of several police vans and buses that police were bundling detainees into near the courthouse.
Prosecutors have asked for sentences of five to six years for the defendants, seven men and a woman, most of them in their 20s. Putin denies using the courts as a political tool but has said people who attack police must be punished.
Sentences longer than time served would anger Kremlin opponents and likely draw criticism from the United States and European countries that have expressed concern about the trial and accused Russia of restricting freedoms.
After reading part of the verdict on Friday, judge Natalya Nikishina abruptly stopped and called a break until Monday, sparking speculation the Kremlin wanted to keep the sentences under wraps until after the end of the Sochi Olympics on Sunday.
Putin, who staked his reputation on the Olympics, engineered the release of long-jailed ex-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two women from protest band Pussy Riot in December, moves widely seen as an effort to improve his image before the Games.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the Pussy Riot members who were released near the end of their two-year sentences for an anti-Putin protest in Moscow's main cathedral during his presidential campaign, were in the crowd on Monday. - Reuters