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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

31 National Bolsheviks Freed, 8 Jailed

MTActivists sitting in one of three defendants' cages in the courtroom Thursday.
The roars of elated friends, sprays of icy champagne and kisses from young women greeted 31 National Bolshevik activists Thursday afternoon as they emerged from the Nikulinsky District Court. Damp and overcrowded prison cells awaited eight of their less-fortunate co-defendants.

After an unprecedented five-month trial in the only Moscow courtroom large enough to accommodate the 39 National Bolshevik Party activists, Judge Alexei Shikhanov handed 31 of them suspended sentences of 18 months to 3 1/2 years for briefly seizing a reception office in a presidential administration building last December.

The eight other activists -- mostly leaders of regional branches of the outspoken opposition group -- which was outlawed last month, received prison terms of 18 months to 3 1/2 years. Many of them will be released in a few months after spending a year in custody since their arrest.

The activists -- nine of whom were under 18 when they were arrested -- had been charged with public disorder.

"I cannot call the verdict a victory," National Bolshevik leader and countercultural writer Eduard Limonov said, standing outside the courthouse with the defendants' joyful relatives. "This is a hideous reprisal that disgraces Russia."

The chief prosecutor in the case, Kira Gudim, said she was satisfied with the ruling, noting that all 39 had been found guilty. "The position of the prosecutors was confirmed by the results of the trial," she said.

She had sought sentences of 18 months to five years in prison, saying the longest sentence should go to an activist who bit a riot police officer when police stormed the reception office.

On Dec. 14, 2004, the 39 National Bolshevik activists locked themselves in the reception office of the presidential administration building on 21 Ulitsa Ilyinka and hung posters in the windows that read, "Putin, Quit Your Job!"

Riot police stormed the office, and two activists were hospitalized, one with a broken leg and the other with a concussion. Activists testified during the trial that the officers had severely beaten them.

"They did not return our children's clothes today as they should have because our children's blood is all over them," said Irina Baganova as she waited outside the court building for her son Maxim to be released. Maxim turned 18 while in custody, she said.

Michael Eckels / MT

National Bolsheviks greeting a freed defendant with the party salute and roars of "Glory to the heroes!" on Thursday.

Asked whether she would allow her son to continue to participate in the National Bolsheviks' nonviolent protest escapades, she said: "Do you really think that it is possible to stop these young men? After all, he and his friends have not done anything bad. They haven't laid a finger on anyone."

Parents have collected about $5,000 to pay for the equipment and furniture that their children were accused of breaking during the brief seizure of the office, she said. They also paid to renovate the office, she said.

Several witnesses testified during the trial that the equipment and furniture were broken by the riot police officers.

Judge Shikhanov spent more than two hours reading the sentences. Several of the defendants, who sat in three specially built cages in the courtroom, chanted "Yes, death!" as they learned that they would serve actual prison time. Their parents wept.

Rows of police officers sealed off the court building and the adjacent block from National Bolshevik activists who had come to support the defendants. Only reporters, parents and Limonov were allowed inside the courtroom.

As the released defendants emerged one by one from the courthouse, a crowd of about 50 activists behind the police line broke into roars of "Glory to the heroes!" and "Hurrah, death!" Many raised their fists in the party greeting.

Semyon Vyatkin, a pale, thin teenager with red hair, was stopped by reporters as he rushed toward the exultant crowd.

"I am not happy with the verdict because my comrades will remain in jail," he said.

He and other freed activists pledged to continue their protests.

The crowd greeted them with kisses, showers of champagne and threw them in the air.

"Two girls for every hero tonight!" a young bearded activist shouted, to a roar of laughter from the crowd. The man said his brother was among those released.

National Bolshevik spokesman Alexander Averin, whose wife, Natalya, was sentenced to three years in prison, did not join in the celebration. "I am glad to have my comrades back, but I need to think about the appeal to the Moscow City Court now," he said.

The freed activists will have to pay monthly visits to the police, and any infraction of the law will turn their suspended sentences into real prison terms.

"My son is not a criminal, but we will have to begin living like criminals," joked Vera Rozhina, whose teenage son Alexei was released.

Defense lawyers expressed satisfaction with the court's ruling and said those who remained behind bars would appeal. Twenty-two defense lawyers participated in the trial.

"I have mixed feelings because it was a compromise. The defendants were sentenced and then released, but they are not guilty," said Dmitry Agranovsky, a lawyer who often defends National Bolshevik activists in court.

Michael Eckels / MT

A grim-faced Eduard Limonov leaving the courtroom after the judge's ruling.

He said the court had sentenced the eight to prison terms because it had determined that they had played leading roles in the office seizure. He said, however, that this was not reflected in investigators' documents filed with the court, and that the eight would have a strong case when they appealed.

The National Bolshevik Party, formed by Limonov in 1993, is one of the most popular political movements among the nation's urban youth. After Limonov and several other senior members have spent time in jail in the last few years on charges of plotting a nationalist rebellion in Kazakhstan, the group has become increasingly vocal in its opposition to the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin.

The authorities have responded harshly to the organization's often-theatrical antics, which have included throwing mayonnaise on senior officials and unfurling anti-Putin posters on landmark buildings. Dozens of activists have been detained and imprisoned.

In November, the Supreme Court ordered the organization to disband. Prosecutors had argued that the group was extremist and masquerading as a political party even though it was not registered as such. The National Bolshevik Party has been trying for months to reregister without the word "party" in its name, but its applications have been repeatedly rejected over technicalities.