Russia jails opposition protesters for violence against police

By Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn
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Russia jails opposition protesters for violence against police

Russian opposition figure Sobol attends a rally to demand free elections in Moscow

By Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court on Tuesday jailed two men for up to three years after convicting them of using violence against police at a political protest, the longest prison terms handed down in what the opposition says is a coordinated crackdown on dissent.

The court action follows a summer of opposition demonstrations demanding free elections to Moscow's city legislature on Sept. 8, the biggest sustained protest movement in the Russian capital since 2011-2013.

Protesters have demanded that a slew of opposition-minded candidates be allowed to take part in the election, something the authorities have refused, citing a lack of necessary signatures in their support. The opposition contests that.

The authorities have allowed some opposition protests, but declined to sanction others. Police have briefly detained more than 2,000 people at rallies since mid-July, opened criminal cases into around a dozen people on charges including mass unrest and handed down short jail terms to scores of activists.

On Tuesday, a Moscow court found 25-year-old Ivan Podkopayev guilty of using pepper spray against police officers at a protest on July 27 and sentenced him to three years in jail. He had pleaded guilty.

Another protester, Danil Beglets, a businessman, received a two-year sentence for pulling a police officer's arm while being detained at the same rally, charges he also pleaded guilty to.

The court also heard criminal cases against two other protesters on Tuesday.


FIVE YEARS FOR TWEET

A Moscow court also sentenced blogger Vladislav Sinitsa to five years in jail after finding him guilty of extremism and inciting violence against the children of police in a July 31 post on Twitter.

Sinitsa suggested in the post that police officers who used violence against protesters might find their own children violently kidnapped. At least one police officer told the court he interpreted the tweet as a threat against his own family.

Sinitsa denied the tweet amounted to incitement to violence and said he would appeal against the sentence, which opposition politician Alexei Navalny decried on Twitter.

"... There's no article in the criminal code about stupidity. But there is for deliberately prosecuting someone who is innocent," said Navalny.

The opposition, however, cautiously welcomed a move by the Investigative Committee, which handles serious crimes, to drop charges against five people who were taken into custody and charged with mass unrest.

Investigators dropped one of two charges against 21-year-old student Yegor Zhukov, a blogger with more than 100,000 YouTube followers whose arrest had caused outcry among classmates, and a Moscow court ruled to move him from jail to house arrest.

A charge of inciting extremism online remains in place, however, investigators said. It carries a jail term of up to five years.

Up to 60,000 people attended an authorised opposition rally on Aug. 10 in Moscow, which a monitoring group called the country's biggest political protest for eight years. But an unauthorised protest last weekend attracted only a few thousand.

Prominent Kremlin critic Lyubov Sobol and journalist Ilya Azar said on Tuesday they had been charged with organising the protest last weekend.

Both were briefly detained by police and then freed late on Monday. Sobol was fined 300,000 roubles ($4,545) on Tuesday for breaking protest law.

Azar said police had detained him after he stepped out of his flat to have a cigarette after putting his small child to bed. He said police had left the door to his flat unlocked and his young daughter on her own there after arresting him.

($1 = 65.9950 roubles)


(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt, Maxim Rodionov and Polina Ivanova; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alison Williams)