Russian protesters defiant as judges hand out jail sentences

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After a ten-minute hearing, the judge sentenced Roman Romanovsky, 35, a film director, to two days in jail for participating in an opposition protest.

It was one of hundreds of similar hearings overloading Moscow's courts after last Sunday's elections.

"It's very quiet and very quick," Romanovsky told the dozen or so people waiting for their hearings outside as he left the courtroom.

The judge barely raised her eyes throughout the hearing, reading out the sentence rapidly and so quietly that parts of it were inaudible.

"Will you be going to any more rallies?" was the only question she asked the defendant.

"That is my constitutional right," replied Romanovsky, a frequent participant in protests, who was arrested for the first time during a December 5 opposition protest in Moscow.

He was among thousands who gathered to denounce the results of parliamentary polls a day earlier that awarded strongman Vladimir Putin's majority party United Russia nearly 50% of the vote.

Though the result was 15% lower than the party's showing in the last parliamentary elections in 2007, many voters took their frustration to the streets as evidence of what appeared to be widespread fraud spread through the Russian Internet.

"They told me that I yelled unpatriotic slogans and that I defied police orders, but that is not true," said 22-year-old economics student Mikhail Balchuk, who also received a two-day jail sentence.

After spending 48 hours at the police station, Balchuk was freed Thursday and wants to appeal what he considers an unfair judgement. He was simply taking pictures of the rally when the police rounded him up, he said.

He denounced the conditions that he, and hundreds of others in Moscow had to endure in police cells.

"They should have given us food and a place to sleep, but we had nothing," he said, adding that his small cell contained 28 people. "Some of us had to sleep on the floor."

Like many others at the rallies, Balchuk was attending a political demonstration for the first time in his life. The accusations of violations in the December 4 elections were the final straw that unleashed a wave of protest.

Conversations among the protestors summoned to the courtroom brought up the controversial 2009 prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, the brutal beating of a journalist at Kommersant daily in 2010, and endemic corruption in Russia.

"I went to the protest because I was ashamed. I could not stay at home. What am I protesting against? Against the fact that I was lied to, that the elections were an illusion," said Vladislav, 24, who works for an insurance company and came to support an arrested friend.

"I moved towards the metro, but it was closed. They told us to go to the other entrance and that's where I was arrested," said Andrei, 27, a computer programmer who also received a two-day sentence.

"There was no reason (for my arrest)," he said, but expressed his relief that his jail sentence was not ten or fifteen days as was handed to many protesters.

Journalist Roman Volkov, who writes for Izvestia daily, also went before the judge, but his hearing was postponed after he said the riot police beat him in his ribcage.

"Since then, I've had trouble breathing," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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