MOSCOW -- A participant in a May 6 anti-Putin demonstration was sentenced Friday to four and a half years in a prison colony for fighting with riot police officers in the first adjudication of 18 similar cases that have sent a shudder through the city's new ranks of middle-class political activists.
The defendant, Maksim Luzyanin, 36, the barrel-chested owner of a Moscow fitness club, was captured on film as he grappled with a uniformed riot policeman, his hands gripping the officer's neck.
Authorities traced Mr. Luzyanin because of his uniquely muscular build -- a black balaclava concealed much of his face -- and charged him with taking part in a riot and using force against a state officer. He was the only defendant in the so-called Bolotnaya cases, named after the square where the brawl took place, to plead guilty, and he paid compensation to a police officer who said his tooth enamel had been chipped in the fracas.
"I am sorry for what I have done, and if I had a chance to correct everything I would not have acted like this," Mr. Luzyanin said during a hearing on Friday, according to footage aired on Russian television. "It was all done under the influence of emotions."
The sentence was two years short of the six and a half years prosecutors had sought, but still a very tough penalty for a brief melee that resulted in no serious injuries -- especially considering that Mr. Luzyanin cooperated with prosecutors. It was the first serious criminal charge to be brought against any of the people who have taken part in the large anti-Putin demonstrations that began last December.
Though Friday's ruling attracted less attention than the two-year sentence handed down to Pussy Riot, a group of anti-Putin punk rockers, in August, it will serve as a grave and unmistakable warning to those considering whether to take part in future events. News of the verdict filtered through Moscow's activist circles late on Friday, and many responded with blunt shock.
"What is going to happen to the others -- 10-year sentences? Will they be shot?" Maria Baranova, 28, who faces charges of participating in mass disorder based on videos taken at the May 6 rally, wrote in a blog post. "The situation has taken a baffling turn for everyone. Luzyanin cooperated fully, and there was not a single person seriously hurt by his actions."
The rally on May 6 -- on the eve of President Vladimir V. Putin' s inauguration -- was peaceful until a crowd in the tens of thousands confronted a line of police officers in full riot gear, who had been ordered to prevent them from marching to the Kremlin. In the resulting bottleneck, some sat down on the pavement while others tried to push their way through the police line. Officers charged into the crowd, swinging nightsticks, and some marchers threw chunks of asphalt at them.
The police reported that 20 officers had suffered injuries, and that three were hospitalized. For Russian authorities, the event supplied a vivid dividing line: After May 6, their tolerance for street activism was gone. Television commentators began warning of a deadly tide of radicalism, and Parliament rushed through a package of draconian laws on public gatherings.
The trial of three members of Pussy Riot, who received two years for singing an anti-Putin song in a cathedral, drove home the new reality that political activists were now subject to criminal prosecution. Though Western observers were outraged by the sentences, many Russians, with their bone-deep distaste for radical activism, thought they were merited.
The Bolotnaya prosecutions represent another threshold for Mr. Putin's government, since many of the defendants come across as not as radicals, but as ordinary people.
Mr. Luzyanin, for his part, clearly appealed to the public for understanding, telling television stations that he earned a modest income -- a bit less than $2,000 a month -- and personally apologizing to the policemen he hit. The sentence he received Friday was, to many who have been following the cases, unexpectedly heavy.
"This just contradicts any common sense," Dmitri Agranovsky, a lawyer who is defending other suspects charged in connection with the May 6 event, said in an interview. "I don't know why the court acted so severely. From the point of view of logic it is impossible to explain. When a person agrees to cooperate with the police, he receives a lesser sentence. All I can say here is that didn't happen. Why? I don't know."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.