Police in Moscow have detained dozens of protesters, breaking up an impromptu rally staged just hours after a court found opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg guilty of fraud in a case seen by critics as politically motivated.
Several hundred protesters had peacefully assembled in Moscow’s Manezh Square when special forces moved in, hauling off some demonstrators into police vans, VOA's Daniel Schearf reported from the scene.
Alexei Navalny himself, ordered under house arrest, was detained by police shortly after he joined protesters.
In all, about 100 people were detained.
Split in sentencing
Earlier, a Russian court found the Navalny brothers guilty of fraud and sentenced them to 3 1/2 years in prison. However, the court suspended the sentence against Alexei but not for his brother, action supporters say is aimed at going after the anti-corruption campaigner's family.
The court session was abruptly moved up by two weeks in a move seen as heading off a protest planned for next month. Over 33,000 people had signed up on Facebook to support the brothers at a rally January 15, when the verdict originally was expected.
The judge found the Navalny brothers guilty of embezzling funds from a Russian subsidiary of French cosmetics company Ives Rocher. But, while Alexei, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was given a suspended sentence, his brother Oleg was ordered to serve 3 1/2 years in prison.
Both were ordered to pay 500,000 rubles, or nearly $9,000, in fines. It was not immediately clear why the judge gave Oleg a harsher sentence, but critics decried it as a blatant attempt to pressure the opposition leader through his family.
'Aren't you ashamed?'
"Aren't you ashamed of what you are doing?'' Alexei asked the court and Judge Yelena Korobchenko after the verdict was announced, with Oleg's harsher punishment. "What are you locking him up for? To punish me even more?"
Speaking later to reporters outside the courthouse, Alexei Navalny lashed out at the Kremlin.
"This government tortures relatives of their opponents. A government that tortures innocent people does not deserve to exist. I call on everyone to go to the square today," Navalny said, apparently referring to Moscow’s Manezh Square, where protesters planned to assemble.
Less than 100 protesters had gathered outside the courthouse earlier in the day, and a few were hauled off by police.
Police late Monday began setting up barricades in Manezh Square, adjacent to the Kremlin and Red Square.
The U.S. State Department issued an advisory to Americans in Moscow, warning them of possible violence and arrests should protests materialize.
Condemnation from US, EU
The State Department and the European Union condemned the sentences handed to the brothers.
Speaking on Tuesday in Washington, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the Russian people deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas.
"The decision is a disturbing development in our view, and it appears to be designed to further punish and deter political activism," Rathke said. "This appears to be another example of the Russian government's growing crackdown on independent voices, and we also continue to be concerned about increasing restrictions on independent media, civil society, minority groups and the political opposition."
Rathke added that "the Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution.''
The European Union also condemned the brothers’ conviction, saying it seemed "politically motivated."
"The EU stresses the importance of judicial decisions to be free from political interference, independent, and in full compliance with the rule of law," the 28-nation body said in a statement.
Experts see no merit
Prosecutor Nadezhda Ignatova said the Navalny brothers' guilt has been fully proven.
However, their supporters and many Russian legal experts point out that not even a minimum of evidence was collected in the case, victims were not named and no damage proven.
Yves Rocher, which originally filed a complaint against the brothers, later withdrew it. Company representatives in Russia said it has no claims against them. Still, prosecutors continued the case in what critics and rights activists view as an abuse of the court system, aimed at persecuting political opponents of the Kremlin.
Alexei Navalny was a leader of the largest public protests against the Russian president in 2011 and 2012, in which tens of thousands took to the streets.
Despite numerous charges against Navalny since then, Russian authorities deny political interference in the judicial system.
Last year, Navalny was found guilty of embezzlement in another case and sentenced to prison. But he was released the day after thousands protested in the streets. The anti-corruption campaigner was given a suspended sentence and ran for mayor of Moscow, finishing second.
Alexei Navalny and his brother are appealing their convictions.
Opposition leaders blast sentence
Prominent Russian opposition leaders promptly took issue with the verdict, seeing it as a result of a political witch hunt.
Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister of Russia and now co-chair of the Russian opposition party RPR-Parnas, told VOA’s Russian service he viewed the sentences as "a cynical reprisal against political opponents."
"We all understand that this case was fabricated; on such grounds, any entrepreneur in Russia could be put in prison," Kasyanov said. "Moreover, in this case, a suspended sentence for Alexei is a convenient method used by the authorities to neutralize a political opponent because now, on top of everything else, with an absolutely innocent brother behind bars, [Alexei] Navalny will be forced to exercise self-restraint in his activities."
Kasyanov predicted the Navalny case would soon help lead to changes in Russia.
"I think that this event, along with the general increase of discontent in the country because of the economy, will be a contributing factor in that we, in 2015, can expect to see some changes in Russia. Citizens will begin to view things differently and, for opposition activists, today’s verdict only adds to their determination and enthusiasm," Kasyanov said.
Kasyanov’s colleague and fellow opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, laid the blame for the verdict squarely on Russia’s president.
"The Navalny sentence was ordered by Putin," said Nemtsov, adding that the court ruling only points to deeper problems.
"The verdict is a blow to Russia's reputation as a whole, [a reputation] which is already faring poorly. And the blow is very powerful, because what happened today demonstrates that there is no judiciary in Russia, that as an institution it does not exist," said Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister.
He added that the absence of a judicial system will only lead to more capital flight, a worsening of the investment climate and will make it impossible for people to do business in Russia.
Daniel Schearf contributed to this report from Moscow.