Sochi: Russian Court Rules Eight Anti-Putin Protestors Guilty Days Before Olympics Ends

Vladimir Putin

Arrested during an Kremlin rally in May 2012, their sentencing has been delayed until Monday, the day after the Winter Olympics' closing ceremony.

MOSCOW -- A Russian court Friday convicted eight people of conspiracy to destabilize the country on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration for a third term two years ago.

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The activists -- all arrested at an anti-Putin rally in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, and charged with 'mass rioting' -- will be sentenced Monday, the day after the closing ceremony of the president's $51 billion showcase winter games in Sochi, prompting speculation the eight will face stiff jail terms.

The guilty verdicts, which had been widely expected by opposition activists who claim Putin is determined to send a message that he will not tolerate challenges to his rule as neighboring Ukraine burns, were met with jeers by a crowd outside the court that included opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. The two women returned to Moscow last night from Sochi where this week they had been arrested and beaten on several occasions by police and Cossack auxiliaries as they attempted to perform anti-government songs.

New York-based Human Rights Watch dubbed the verdicts a "miscarriage of justice" in a case that was "deeply flawed from the start."

The group's Russia program director, Tanya Lokshina, said charges of "mass rioting" stemming from clashes between police and a few dozen of tens of thousands of peaceful protestors, were "inappropriate."

During the clashes, 29 police officers and 55 protestors reported injuries, most of them minor.

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Russian investigative authorities alleged that the violence was planned and was part of a conspiracy to destabilize the country, although the clashes did not meet the legal definition of "mass riots" which, under Russian law should involve "violence, pogroms, destruction of property, use of firearms, or armed resistance to the authorities."  In June 2012, Russia's own human rights ombudsman criticized the mass rioting charges, saying they were disproportionate. The charge carries sentences of up to 10 years' imprisonment.

Lawyers for the eight said they will appeal and activists have called for people to rally close to Moscow's Red Square on Monday evening.