Twelve Russians went on trial yesterday in Moscow, accused of violence at a rally on the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration last year, in a process condemned by critics as a show trial aimed at suffocating dissent.
Ten defendants were participating in the hearing from inside a glass-walled cage known as an “aquarium,” while two more, who are not under arrest, were seated on a bench. The case is being heard at the Moscow City Court because a district court does not have a cage large enough to accommodate all the suspects, a court spokeswoman said.
The participants are being tried over what the Kremlin calls “mass riots” on Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow during a peaceful rally on May 6 last year, which descended into violence one day before Putin was inaugurated for his presidential term. Yesterday’s hearing kicked off what activists have described as the first mass political show trial in Putin’s Russia aimed against ordinary citizens rather than prominent opposition figures.
“This is a landmark trial. It brings us back to the time of systemic repression against peaceful opponents of the regime,” prominent rights activist Alexander Podrabinek said.
“The authorities are trying to thwart mass rallies and intimidate its rank-and-file participants and not only the organizers,” he said.
Supporters in the court clapped and chanted “We will win” as the suspects were being led into the courtroom for a preliminary hearing that is closed to the media. Relatives of the defendants said they were getting ready for the worst, but noted the reality was still impossible to deal with.
“Our family is overwhelmed by grief that would not go away,” said Yekaterina Tarasova, mother-in-law of Leonid Kovyazin, one of the accused.
“We are expecting anything but we are not ready. How can one be ready for horror?” said Tarasova, whose daughter, Yevgeniya, married Kovyazin while he was in detention.
Pictures showed the suspects, most dressed casually in T-shirts and slacks or shorts, standing in the glass cage, some smiling.
The hearing comes as Alexei Navalny, a blogger and the most charismatic leader of the protest movement, is also standing trial over embezzlement accusations that could result in a jail term of up to 10 years.
These trials are part of what critics call an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition unleashed by the Kremlin after Putin returned as president.
One of Russia’s most prominent economists, Sergei Guriyev, fled Moscow for Paris last month, saying he was harassed by investigators over the case of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“In modern Russia, even a person who has done nothing wrong ... can still face risks of losing his/her freedom,” Guriyev had said.
His abrupt departure caused tremors among the Russian elites and sparked fears of the beginning of an exodus of the country’s best and brightest.