MOSCOW (AFP) – A Russian court sentenced a nationalist to life in prison on Friday for the brazen murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anastasia Baburova in what experts called a rare victory for the embattled rights community.

The sentencing comes after a jury last month found Nikita Tikhonov, 30, guilty of committing the twin murders, and co-accused Yevgenia Khasis, 25, his common-law wife of complicity in the crimes.

Khasis received 18 years in a penal colony.

The couple, who observed proceedings from inside a glass cage, appeared largely unperturbed by the sentences.

Clutching Tikhonov's forearm, Khasis flashed wide smiles for television cameras and blew kisses to supporters in the courtroom as her grim-faced boyfriend stood next to her, national television broadcasts showed.

Tikhonov was found guilty of murdering Markelov, 34, in broad daylight in central Moscow as he and 25-year-old journalist Baburova were going to the Moscow metro after a news conference on January 19, 2009.

Tikhonov and Khasis, who have loose links to nationalist groups, were arrested later that year in a joint operation by investigators, special FSB services and interior ministry agents.

The murders caused outrage at home and in the West, where authorities are openly alarmed that killers and their masterminds often go unpunished in Russia.

The FSB security service at the time said the two were members of a "small radical nationalist group" taking revenge on the lawyer for his role in defending the victims of racism and those involved in the Chechnya crisis.

Baburova, who worked for Russia's top opposition paper Novaya Gazeta, was wounded when she tried to stop the gunman, and died from her wounds at the hospital.

Observers say the stiff punishment was a rare victory for human rights campaigners.

"A life sentence is a truly rare event for our courts," Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova research centre that tracks hate crimes, told AFP, adding that the punishment would provide an example for others.

Novaya Gazeta, which in the past has lost several reporters including star journalist Anna Politkovskaya, praised the verdict but said authorities needed to do much more if they wanted to prove Russia respected human rights.

"This is a significant victory in the fight against Nazism but this is a small step on the path to fighting this disease in society," said Novaya Gazeta spokeswoman Nadezhda Prusenkova.

"The very fact that the murder of a lawyer and reporter is possible in central Moscow shows that our society is ill," she told AFP, praising investigators for their "brilliant work."

Markelov worked closely with Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in Moscow in 2006, and with rights campaigner Natalya Estemirova, who was abducted and killed in the North Caucasus in 2009.

The perpetrators of both those killings have yet to be convicted.

The two defendants' jury trial started earlier this year and the jury agreed that Tikhonov should not expect any leniency. Khasis however received a sentence that was slightly reduced from the 20 years prosecutors demanded earlier in the week.

Roman Karpinsky, an attorney for Markelov's family, called the verdict "fair" and said he saw no grounds for it to be revisited. Lawyers for Tikhonov and Khasis promised to appeal.

Xenophobic attitudes have grown in Russia in recent years as critics charge the Kremlin has been courting nationalists on purpose.

Experts say nationalist sentiments are becoming increasingly difficult to keep in check after unprecendented riots in central Moscow caught Russia by surprise.

Scores of football fans and ultra-nationalists clashed with police near the Kremlin, prompting President Dmitry Medvedev to say that nationalism presented a security threat for the whole state.