Critics: Trial Of Russian Protesters Threatens Right To Dissent

In Moscow, a dozen people are on trial in connection with a protest last year against Russian President Vladimir Putin. They're accused of attacking police and participating in mass riots after the demonstration turned violent. Critics charge that the trial is part of an intimidation campaign against dissidents.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. In Moscow, a dozen people are on trial in connection with a protest last year against Russian President Vladimir Putin. They're accused of attacking police and participating in mass riots after the demonstration turned violent. Critics charge that the trial is part of an intimidation campaign against dissidents. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: On the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration to a third term, thousands of people turned out to protest what they considered to be a rigged election.

CROWD: (Chanting in Russian)

FLINTOFF: But the peaceful demonstration on May 6th of last year turned violent after a group of people broke through a police line blocking entry to Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTING)

FLINTOFF: It's not clear exactly who started the clashes between demonstrators and the police. Video footage shows some people in the crowd hitting or kicking officers, as well as cops in riot gear bashing protesters with their batons. More than 400 people were detained that day and dozens were injured. Irina Yarovaya, a parliament deputy and member of Putin's United Russia Party, visited with injured police officers after the clashes.

IRINA YAROVAYA: (Russian spoken)

FLINTOFF: She says she became convinced that the police were simply doing their duty, and she demands punishment for anyone involved in what she calls aggressive provocation. A little more than a year later, more than two dozen people have been charged in connection with the protest. Members of a group known as the Bolotnaya 12 are the latest to stand trial. Critics say the charges - attacking police and participating in mass riots - are based on shaky evidence. Most of the defendants are not high-profile activists.

MASHA GESSEN: The people who were arrested and charged in connection with this case were chosen almost at random.

FLINTOFF: Masha Gessen is a journalist and author who's an outspoken critic of Putin. As the crowd milled around before a recent court session, Gessen said the government is cracking down on dissent.

GESSEN: The case is part of a large campaign that has basically had a huge chilling effect on the protest movement.

FLINTOFF: Maria Baronova is an opposition activist and one of the defendants.

MARIA BARONOVA: They want to show to the public that OK, if you are protesting against us, well, we are coming to you, we are arresting you.

FLINTOFF: Human rights groups say the Bolotnaya case reflects the deterioration of basic freedoms in Russia. Damelya Aitkhozhina is a researcher at Amnesty International in Moscow.

DAMELYA AITKHOZHINA: At least some of these people are being prosecuted merely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of assembly and expression, which is absolutely unacceptable.

FLINTOFF: Aitkhozhina is also worried about recent changes to the law on public assembly, adopted after the Bolotnaya Square protest. People violating so-called prescribed order may now be slapped with hefty fines. Amnesty says the vaguely worded law threatens freedom of assembly. Baronova, the defendant, denies the charges that she incited people to riot. But she's also aware that Russian trials almost always end in guilty verdicts.

BARONOVA: Oh, we are all going to jail.

FLINTOFF: Some of the Bolotnaya protesters have already been behind bars for more than a year, awaiting trial. If convicted, they could be sentenced to a much as ten years in prison. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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