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MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court found two protest leaders guilty of inciting mass riots on Thursday in a case that the opposition sees as part of a clampdown on President Vladimir Putin's foes while all eyes are on Ukraine.
The state prosecution has called for eight-year jail terms for Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozhayev, and they were expected to be sentenced later on Thursday.
Udaltsov, who has been under house arrest since February 2013, and Razvozhayev were accused of coordinating protests which turned violent on May 6, 2012, the eve of Putin's inauguration for a third term as president.
"Udaltsov, Razvozhayev ... agreed between themselves repeatedly on the organization of mass disorders on the territory of the Russian Federation," Judge Alexander Zamashnyuk told the Moscow court. The two deny the charges of organizing mass riots and plotting wider unrest, portraying themselves as victims of a political witch-hunt and a crackdown on civil liberties.
Udaltsov, 37, a fiery orator with a shaven head who dressed in black for the hearing, was one of the most prominent leaders of the opposition movement that organized urban protests against Putin in the winter of 2011-12 that have long since faded.
"How many lies in this verdict? One big lie. Udaltsov's testimony was distorted," said an entry on Udaltsov's Twitter account maintained by members of his Left Front political organization.
Razvozhayev, 41, an aide to a member of parliament who is critical of Putin, says he was abducted in Ukraine, smuggled into Russia and forced into signing a confession, which he later disavowed.
Police detained more than 400 people and dozens of officers were hurt in clashes in May 2012 after police restricted the rally on Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin. Seven people were jailed in February over the protests.
"Seventy-eight representatives of the authorities (police) were injured," said the judge at a ruling attended by many opposition activists, two of whom were ejected for being "too emotional".
Kremlin critics accuse police of starting the violence at the Bolotnaya rally to discredit the opposition as Putin returned to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
They say the Kremlin uses pliant courts for political purposes and highlight the jailing of seven people in February over the rally. The president denies interfering in court cases but says anyone who attacks police should be punished.
In his third spell as president, following two successive terms from 2000 until 2008, Putin has adopted an increasingly conservative stance to consolidate his public support. His popularity has risen to new heights in Russia since the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in March. However, he could become an international pariah if Russia is found to have provided missiles to rebels in eastern Ukraine, where a passenger jet was brought down last week, killing 298 people.
Putin said this week he would not tighten the screws on opponents. But critics note that another prominent protest leader, Alexei Navalny, is also under house arrest after getting a suspended five-year sentence on charges of theft.
Opponents say Putin has quietly enacted laws which will strengthen his hand in his battle against dissent, including legislation envisaging tougher punishment for people involved in riots and imposing life sentences for various "terrorist" crimes.[ID:nL6N0NS5HT]
He has also approved tighter controls on bloggers, some of whom have emerged as opposition leaders and have used the Internet to criticize Putin and arrange protests. [ID:nL6N0NL3VF]
Reporting Maria Tsvetkova,; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by David Stamp