Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Mercy for Limonov Activists

If the judge had allowed photographs to be taken in his courtroom, the result might have been an award-winning picture. Three freshly painted defendants' cages lined a wall in the sun-lit room. Crammed inside were 39 men and women in their teens to early 20s, cheering on aggrieved parents and friends seated on hard benches facing the judge.

On the first day of court hearings against the National Bolshevik Party activists who briefly seized a public reception office of the presidential administration in December, parents and other supporters had reason to believe that the defendants would not get off lightly, with Judge Mikhail Shikhanov rejecting every appeal from the defense and granting every request from the prosecution.

"Judging by the court's behavior, the verdict will be guilty. The defense is being systemically destroyed," National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov said outside the courtroom during a recess Friday.

This is a remarkable case in many ways. It has a record number of defendants who are being defended by a team of 22 lawyers. The defendants themselves are inadvertently members of the first political organization to be banned in post-Soviet Russia, after a court ordered the National Bolshevik Party to disband just days before the trial began. In addition, 48 fellow activists are already serving prison sentences for activities that Limonov stressed had never led to injury or death.

A reporter needed to pass three police cordons and undergo a search on Friday to enter the Nikulinsky District Court, which was chosen because it has the largest courtroom of any municipal district court.

Two cages were filled with men and the third with women. The defendants come from various Russian regions and even the United States, the Netherlands and Moldova. The U.S. and Dutch defendants are the children of ethnically Russian emigres who have dual citizenship.

On Dec. 14, about 40 activists entered the reception office of the presidential administration on 21 Ulitsa Ilyinka, locked themselves in and hung posters in windows urging President Vladimir Putin to resign. They were arrested after riot police violently stormed the office.

"My daughter had a brain concussion and was taken away by ambulance. The policemen kicked her in the head with their boots," Fariza Dalimzyanova said. Her daughter, Lera Guskova, 22, spent 10 days in the hospital and was then taken into custody.

Only one detainee, Ivan Petrov, 15, was released after prosecutors determined that as a minor he could not be charged. He was held for two months before being released.

Eight other activists turned 18 while in custody and are now being tried as adults.

The plaintiffs -- the presidential administration and the Federal Guards Service -- have also filed a civil suit for property damages. Plaintiffs' lawyers refused on Friday to disclose the amount of the damage or to describe what was damaged.

"You will learn about it during the trial," said a representative from the presidential administration who attended the heading. She refused to give her name.

Riot police smashed up the office during the storming, said Tatyana Figleva, the mother of defendant Sergei Ryzhikov, 18.

"My son and his friends did not go there to break or burn something," she said, her eyes wet with tears. "These children did not lay a finger on anything there -- they did not even drink water from a water cooler in the office.

"Now they will spend years in jail. Is that adequate punishment?" she said.

The National Bolshevik Party, which Limonov, a counterculture writer, created in 1993, is arguably the most popular political movement among urban youth. Initially an ultranationalist group, it abandoned those leanings after Putin came to power in 2000 to instead protest the Kremlin's benefits, housing and electoral reforms. It is now perhaps the most effective mouthpiece for the disenfranchised and disenchanted in Russia.

The organization is also under increasing fire from the Kremlin, which has begun looking for support among the youth.

The group's nonviolent theatrical protests, which include throwing food at senior officials and hanging anti-government banners on landmarks, have led to a brutal crackdown that culminated with the Moscow regional court ordering its disbandment in late June.

Police showed no mercy to the defendants in court Friday. During a break, seven men and women who wanted to go to the bathroom were handcuffed and chained together in a line to be led out of the courtroom.

The seemingly excessive response to a basic human need further infuriated parents in the courtroom, and they made loud remarks against the police and the government.

Judge Shikhanov struck down all pleas from defense lawyers to strengthen their cases in court. He rejected a request to allow television cameras and photographers into the courtroom, upholding arguments from prosecutors and plaintiffs that they would hinder the trial.

Shikhanov also refused to allow two senior State Duma deputies, Viktor Ilyukhin and Ivan Melnikov of the Communist Party, to join the defense team.

Defense lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky said the inclusion of the two was essential due to the high profile of the trial. "To some extent, the development of democracy in Russia depends on its outcome," he said, as the representative of the presidential administration rolled her eyes.

Alexei Smirnov, one of the two prosecutors assigned to the trial, argued that the deputies were too busy to attend the hearings.

Melnikov, who sat beside Limonov on Friday, told the judge that Friday was the Duma's last day before the summer recess and that he and Ilyukhin were ready to join the defense team.

The judge said the defendants had sufficient legal representation and rejected the appeal. Courtroom spectators booed and clapped their hands in protest.

Using the same argument, the judge refused to permit the father of one defendant and wife of another join the defense team.

Russian law places no limit on the number of people who can defend a suspect in a criminal case. The law also does not require that all members of a defense team be lawyers.

Then defense lawyer Alexei Zavgorodny entered an appeal that clearly confused the judge. He argued that one prosecutor was more than enough to present the plaintiffs' case and that the second should be removed.

Defendants shouted their support for the motion from their cages, and the judge called for a 30-minute recess. He then rejected Zavgorodny's plea and adjourned the trial until Monday.