MOSCOW (AP) — Five protesters who were arrested and charged with rioting connected to recent anti-government rallies walked free on Tuesday after Russian investigators dropped the charges against them. Separately, two protesters who accepted a plea bargain were given jail sentences in an expedited trial.
The Investigative Committee’s decision to drop the charges marks a U-turn in what has largely been seen as a widening crackdown on Russia’s opposition and its supporters. Fourteen people, mostly with no history of political activism, have been charged with rioting, which carries up to eight years in prison. The charges relate to an unauthorized protest on July 27 that was marked by police violence. The protesters, however, weren’t seen attacking the police, and no property damage was reported.
The investigators said Tuesday that they “found no criminal activities” in the actions of the five people and dropped the charges against them.
The investigators also said that they have asked the court to release two more suspects who have been under house arrest.
25-year-old Sergei Abanichev, who was accused of throwing a paper cup toward the police and has been in jail for a month, walked out of a police station Tuesday evening to embrace his sobbing mother who had waited outside together with his father for several hours. They found out about Sergei’s impending release from an Associated Press reporter several hours earlier.
“I would go to sleep every night, thinking that tomorrow I will go home,” Abanichev, who works as a sales manager, said upon release. He said that he was not given an explanation for his release or an apology, but merely told that he is no longer accused of rioting.
Abanichev said that the investigators had tried to make him confess to the violence he did not commit. He credited wide public support and media coverage for his release.
Earlier on Tuesday, a Moscow district court sentenced Ivan Podkopayev and Danil Beglets, both 25, to three and two years in prison, respectively, for using force against the police.
The court held an expedited hearing for both men and did not study the evidence after they accepted a plea bargain. The prosecutors said in court that Podkopayev sprayed tear gas on two police officers while Beglets grabbed an officer by the wrist, allegedly trying to prevent another protester’s arrest.
The probe against the protesters was seen as an attempt to crack down on anti-Kremlin demonstrations that erupted in Moscow in mid-July after election officials barred a dozen opposition candidates from running for the city legislature. Authorities originally allowed the weekend protests to go unhindered, but later outlawed the gatherings and started detaining and beating the demonstrators, which only helped to swell the crowds.
But as the authorities reversed the prosecution of some of the protesters, they appeared to be turning the heat on the opposition leaders.
One of the protest leaders, Lyubov Sobol, was detained late Monday and was fined by a court Tuesday, just days before the local vote that set off the protests, on charges of repeated violations of the law on public gatherings.
Police also detained municipal lawmaker Ilya Azar on Monday, picking him up from his home and leaving his toddler alone in an unlocked apartment, according to his wife and other local lawmakers. Azar’s lawyer said they would complain about the police actions.