Russian courts sentenced more than a dozen people to jail terms on Wednesday for taking part in protests against the authorities' treatment of activist Alexei Navalny and his brother, Oleg.
More than 200 protesters, including members of the punk band Pussy Riot, were detained at a generally peaceful rally in Moscow on Tuesday, but most were eventually released.
Several thousand had gathered near Red Square and the Kremlin in an anti-government demonstration following the Navalnys' conviction in a controversial fraud case. The two brothers were each sentenced to three-and-one-half years in prison, but sentence was suspended for Alexei Navalny, a well-known blogger and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Navalny has been under house arrest for the past 10 months, but he defied those restrictions to join Tuesday's protest. Police grabbed him off the street before he reached Manezh Square, the site of the demonstration, then put him in a van and drove him back home.
Russia's prison service filed a formal complaint against Alexei Navalny for his actions, but a court declined to consider further action. Navalny's defense team, meanwhile, asked the court to repeal his house-arrest order, arguing that the suspension of his prison sentence means Navalny's public movements should not be restricted.
Commenting on the case Wednesday, Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, noted that Putin's policies and actions have strengthened the Russian Communist Party's position in the State Duma. At the same time, Smith told VOA, Putin has squashed his opponents and gotten rid of any viable political parties or leaders who oppose him.
“It is ironic, because while Vladimir Putin has been crushing political opposition parties and opposition figures in Russia, he has allowed the Communist Party to double in size over the last 10 years, to become the second largest party in the Duma [lower house of Russian parliament]," he said. "Why is he doing this?"
Smith said it appears that Putin is trying to "take advantage of and manipulate" the many Russians who view the former Soviet Union with nostalgic affection.
The analyst said Putin already has stripped away many of the democratic reforms that Russia adopted after the breakup of the USSR in 1991, thus remaking the country into an authoritarian regime.
By arresting his opponents, seizing their assets and bringing corruption charges against them, Smith said, President Putin has created a climate of “fear and censorship" that reinforces his grip on power.
Russian activists and senior public figures in the United States and European Union have denounced the prosecution of the Navalny brothers as a “disturbing” and “politically motivated” action. Alexei Navalny, 38, and his brother, Oleg, were found guilty of embezzlement and fraud charges - felony offenses, under Russian law, that carry a 10-year ban on political activity.
Oleg Navalny, who is widely seen as a pawn in a plot to silence his brother, did not have his prison sentence suspended. He was sent to jail from the courtroom.
A well-known expert on Russian internal affairs, Lilia Shevtsova, said with heavy irony that the prosecution was typical "Kremlin liberalism."
Shevtsova, who is with the U.S. Brookings Institution, said the treatment of both Alexei and Oleg Navalny sent a clear message: “Let’s put [Alex] on a long leash," she wrote on Facebook. "We can always shorten it. And the brother [Oleg] gets a real sentence. This means that we take a family member hostage! And we can make his life in prison unbearable.”