Twelve Russians went on trial in Moscow on Thursday accused of violence at a rally on the eve of 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’s top city court because a district court does not have a cage large enough to accomodate 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, 2012 which suddenly descended into violence one day before Putin was inaugurated for his term presidential term.
Thursday’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 told AFP.
“The authorities are trying to thwart mass rallies and intimidate its rank-and-file participants and not only the organisers.”
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 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.
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 from Putin’s Russia.
Former world chess champion and anti-Kremlin activist Garry Kasparov said in Geneva earlier this week he would not be returning to Russia for the time being over fears he could also be investigated.