MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two Russian opposition activists accused of plotting violent protests went on trial on Tuesday and denounced the charges against them as part of a politically motivated crackdown on opponents of President Vladimir Putin.
Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev are charged with organizing violent mass disorder and face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.
The accusations against the two men are linked to a protest on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a third term as president in May 2012, when clashes erupted between protesters and police.
The defendants say police provoked the violence. Putin has emphasized that anyone who attacks police must be punished.
“I categorically reject the accusations against me. I believe the investigators did nothing more than carry out a political order aimed at neutralizing active opposition representatives,” Udaltsov said before the judge cut him off.
A veteran street protester with a shaven head, Udaltsov, 37, helped organize a series of earlier demonstrations that shook the Kremlin after a December 2011 parliamentary election marred by widespread allegations of fraud in favor of Putin’s party.
He and Razvozzhayev were prosecuted after a pro-Kremlin television channel aired allegations that Udaltsov had received money and orders to cause unrest in Russia from an ally of Georgia’s then-president Mikheil Saakashvili, a foe of Putin.
Eight people tried on charges of violence against police at the May 6, 2012, protest are to hear their verdict on Friday. Several others accused in connection with the protest have been cleared under an amnesty Putin engineered in December.
The amnesty also led to the release of two members of protest punk band Pussy Riot. Separately, Putin pardoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent more than a decade in jail on tax evasion charges but was widely seen in the West as a political prisoner.
Many observers said the amnesty and Khodorkovsky’s release were aimed at improving Russia’s image before the 2014 Winter Olympics this month in Sochi, a major prestige project for Putin that will help shape his legacy after 14 years in power.
Razvozzhayev has said he was tortured after being abducted in Ukraine, where he was seeking asylum. Russian authorities deny they abducted him. Razvozzhayev faces an additional charge of illegally crossing a state border.
Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Gareth Jones