MOSCOW Supporters clapped and chanted "Freedom" in a Moscow courthouse on Thursday as 12 Russians went before a judge charged with mass disorder during a protest against President Vladimir Putin.
The protesters, several of them students, could face long prison terms if convicted over clashes with police in May last year on the eve of Putin's return to the presidency.
Putin critics liken the case to Soviet-era show trials and say the result will be decided in the Kremlin. They say the prosecutions are part of a new clampdown on dissent by Putin, now in his third term as president.
All 10 men are in pre-trial custody and were led into a cramped courtroom cage before guards removed their handcuffs.
A 19-year-old woman who was dragged by the neck by a camouflage officer at the protest last year is under house arrest, and the other female defendant cannot leave Russia. Both female defendants were in court but not inside the cage.
"This is a Stalin-style trial," said Georgy Satarov, a former aide to the late President Boris Yeltsin and now head of INDEM, a think-tank. "This is revenge ... It's an attempt to use fear to stop the growth of the protest movement."
No date has been set for the trial. The judge rejected a motion to disqualify herself, saying a defense claim of bias was groundless, and extended the custody of the defendants for six months before adjourning the hearing until Friday.
"NEW GENERATION OF POLITICAL PRISONERS"
Putin has signed laws activists say restrict freedoms, and civic groups are under pressure from the state over foreign funding. Prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny could be jailed for 10 years if convicted of theft in a trial he says is Putin's revenge for his activism.
"Putin is cracking down harder than ever and is showing he is willing to create a new generation of political prisoners unseen since the days of Stalin," former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is outside Russia and fears he may be prosecuted if he returns, said on Facebook on Thursday.
Most of the 12 defendants at the pre-trial hearing held behind closed doors on Thursday are in their 20s and could be jailed for eight years if convicted.
The rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration followed several peaceful protests that were fuelled by claims of fraud in a parliamentary election and dismay at Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin after a stint as prime minister.
Putin denies he is seeking to stifle dissent, saying people have the right to protest peacefully but condemning violence against police. In April, he denied he had returned "elements of Stalinism" but said Russia needed "order and discipline."
The protests were the biggest of Putin's 13 years in power, but they have since dwindled. A new opposition march is planned for June 12 along a route ending at Bolotnaya Square, the site of the protest the defendants are being tried for.
Artist Andrei Barabanov, one of nearly 30 people facing trial or prosecution over the May 6, 2012 protest, was dragged away so roughly by police that an ambulance was called for him.
Like most of the defendants he has no previous criminal record and says all he did was defend himself against police.
Police say protesters struck them with plastic flagpoles and metal crowd barriers and that some hurled chunks of asphalt. They said more than 40 officers were hurt.
"What I saw was mass disorder on the part of the police," said Barabanov's girlfriend Yekaterina, who declined to give her last name. She called the case a "huge pile of lies".
(Additional reporting and writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Mike Collett-White)