Today, a Moscow court sentenced eight protesters to prison terms ranging from two-and-a-half to four years in relation to a mass anti-Putin rally in May 2012, on the eve of his presidential inauguration. On February 21, 2014, they were all found guilty of mass rioting and violence against police officials, despite the stark lack of conclusive evidence. Only one of the eight, a young woman, got a suspended sentence, and she will be subjected to travel restrictions. The rest will be sent to penal colonies unless the court ruling is overturned on appeal.

In what has evolved into Russia’s biggest political trial, the disproportionate charges and harsh sentences for the Bolotnaya protesters appear to be aimed at discouraging people from participating in public protests. The government reinforced this message by detaining hundreds of people near the court building both on the day of the verdict and today, as the sentence was being read.

I was at the courthouse on February 21 and saw a large crowd of people gathered next to the courthouse, holding “Freedom to Bolotnaya prisoners” posters and white balloons. They shouted slogans in support of the defendants and urged the authorities to free them. They stood by the court building all day.

Police surrounded them and detained them, even though they were completely peaceful. At first, they would detain people one by one if they shouted slogans or held up posters, and dragged them to police buses. Then the detentions became totally random. By the end of the day, police detained 200 people, including three journalists, a prominent film director, and a 60-year-old mathematician from the Russia Academy of Sciences. One of the journalists alleged that police officers kicked and choked him though he was not putting up any resistance. He filed an official complaint.

A friend of mine who was detained to his own utmost astonishment – he didn’t even have a poster or shout slogans – told me that the police officer who dragged him to the bus kept saying, “We know they [the opposition] hired you to come here for 500 roubles (approximately US$15), so don’t be surprised you will now pay the price.” 

All the detained were released hours later, either without charge or after being charged with participation in an unsanctioned rally. Their administrative court hearings are pending.

In Russian, the word for verdict and sentence is the same, and as a rule, both are announced on the same day. The Bolotnaya case was an exception. After announcing that all the eight defendants were guilty as charged, the judge suddenly ended the hearing, saying that the actual sentences would only be announced in three days time. I can only wonder whether the authorities did not want to deliver the sentence before the closing ceremony at the Sochi Olympics.

On Monday when the games were over, as the judge was finally announcing the sentences, over a thousand people – unperturbed by the vicious police crackdown on the day of the verdict – rallied by the court building and in vicinity of the Kremlin to support of the Bolotnaya prisoners. Over 600 of them have been detained and are now crowded at police precincts across Moscow.