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Jul 24, 2:32 PM EDT

Russians sentenced to 4 1/2 years on riot conviction

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MOSCOW (AP) -- A Moscow court convicted two Russian opposition activists and sentenced them to 4 1/2 years in prison Thursday for their role in organizing protests a day before President Vladimir Putin's inauguration in May 2012.

Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev were sentenced for organizing mass riots and colluding to commit a crime. They both pleaded not guilty in a trial that has dragged on since October 2012, when they were detained and put under house arrest. Prosecutors requested had eight years in prison for each.

Since Putin's return to the presidency in 2012, when hundreds of thousands protested the vote in the streets of Moscow, the government has cracked down with a slew of laws restricting protests and curbing activity of non-governmental organizations. One law increases the fine for taking part in unsanctioned protests 150 fold to 300,000 rubles (nearly $9,000), close to the average annual salary. More recent legislation has upped the penalties for those who are detained more than once at an unsanctioned protest.

With a rising approval rating at home, there has been little domestic dissent as prominent opposition activists are prosecuted in court and quietly put out of the public eye. Russia's leading opposition figure, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, has been under house arrest, barred from receiving visitors or communicating on social media, since February pending another trial.

Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev were detained after a Kremlin-controlled TV station aired a documentary containing footage allegedly showing them meeting with a foreign politician to discuss funding for protests against Putin. Udaltsov, who was one of the top leaders of the street protest movement in 2012, all but disappeared from public view after being put under house arrest almost two years ago.

The two were convicted for their role as organizers of a May 2012 demonstration where clashes broke out after police restricted access to a square where the protesters had permission to gather.

The resulting trial - dubbed the "Bolotnaya Affair," after the name of the square - has involved charges against 32 people, 11 of whom have been convicted and sentenced to prison or house arrest. Most of those sentenced were not active or prominent members of the opposition movement, and some said during the trial that the May 2012 protest was their first.


Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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