A Moscow district court on Saturday ordered Sergei Udaltsov, a prominent opposition leader, to be placed under house arrest, in one of the most assertive legal measures to date against a leader of the anti-Kremlin protests that began more than a year ago.
Udaltsov, the leader of the radical socialist Left Front movement, faces a charge of conspiracy to incite mass disorder, under a statute that can bring a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. According to Saturday’s ruling, he may not leave his house, use the Internet, receive letters or communicate with anyone outside his family and legal team until April 6, the current date for the end of the investigation of his case.
The ruling seemed to signal a new stage in the government’s effort to punish well-known critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Though most of the well-known protest leaders have served short sentences for administrative violations and several are the subject of criminal inquiries, none had yet been held on criminal charges.
The authorities may have held back from jailing protest leaders like Udaltsov for fear of inciting a backlash from opposition sympathizers.
Udaltsov has a particular ability to mobilize young men and is one of the few opposition leaders to focus on economic issues relevant to Russians outside large cities.
A passionate public speaker and the great-grandson of a prominent Bolshevik, Udaltsov stood out among the Moscow protesters, many of them middle-class Russians who distance themselves from calls for revolution.
Speaking with journalists outside the courtroom, Udaltsov said that he had broken no laws and that the house arrest order had a “strictly political character.”
“They have gotten to the point of open fabrication and lies,” he said. “My civic activity just angers the authorities, angers law enforcement structures and they are taking steps to isolate me from taking part in civic life.”
During Saturday’s hearing, prosecutors also claimed that Udaltsov had threatened to attack his wife, Anastasia Udaltsova, and that she at one point had fled to Ukraine with their children. A judge refused to allow Udaltsova to testify in court on Saturday, but she told the Novaya Gazeta daily newspaper that the accusation was “a total lie.”
Udaltsov has been accused of attacking the police and rioting at an anti-Putin rally that ended in clashes in May last year, and of attempting to organize anti-government riots in cities across Russia.
He has been under a travel ban since October, but prosecutors said that he had gone outside Moscow and continued to lead public rallies while under investigation.
A statement from investigators charged that Udaltsov “has not lived at his registered address for a long time, his mobile telephone is often switched off, making it difficult to summon the accused to investigators.”
The statement also said Udaltsov “does not inform the investigation of his factual location.”