MOSCOW (AFP) — A Russian court imprisoned a group of young anarchists on Monday for between six and 18 years on terror and other charges, with critics calling the sentences "monstrous."
A military court in the central city of Penza handed down the verdict in the case of the so-called "Network" group, Sergei Morgunov, a lawyer for one of the seven defendants, told AFP.
Rights activists and defense lawyers have strongly criticized the probe overseen by the FSB security service, the successor to the KGB, saying the men had been tortured.
All seven denied the charges in court.
Dmitry Pchelintsev and Ilya Shakursky, 23, were convicted of creating a "terrorist organization," among other charges, and sentenced to 18 and 16 years in prison respectively.
The FSB accused Pchelintsev, 27, of creating the "Network" organization with the goal of overthrowing the government and seeking to attack government offices and employees.
Five others were found guilty of participating in the organization, and several were also convicted of illegal possession of weapons and explosives and attempted drug trafficking.
Five of the seven men will serve their terms in a maximum-security prison.
Arrested in 2017 and 2018, most defendants have said they were tortured in custody with electrodes and beaten to extract a confession.
The "Network" probe is still going on and two people — one of who has already alleged he was tortured — are awaiting trial in the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg.
Human rights organization Memorial said the men convicted on Monday were political prisoners, describing them as leftist activists and anti-fascists.
Almost 50,000 people signed an online petition demanding that the case be closed.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that President Vladimir Putin had looked into the case "on several occasions" and told officials to make sure "everything is in accordance with the law.”
'Everything made up'
Kommersant newspaper reported that the case against the "Network" was launched after a student detained by police on a drug charge confessed to participating in the criminal group.
Memorial says there is a clear political motive behind the probe, pointing to increasing "repression against anarchists and anti-fascists."
"This is a monstrously harsh verdict, but we didn't expect anything else," Oleg Orlov of Memorial told AFP.
In 2018, the state-controlled NTV channel aired a programme accusing the men of self-harming to create the appearance of torture injuries and saying their supporters are on the payroll of the West.
In an open letter, relatives of the convicted men called the charges against them "fabricated" and demanded a fair trial.
"Everything in this case has been made up," said the letter released by For Human Rights, an NGO.
Independent media said the prosecution had failed to provide any concrete evidence in court.
"They planned to plan an act of terror in an undefined location at an undefined time in undefined circumstances, together with undefined persons," the lawyer of defendant Maksim Ivankin, Olga Golovanova told AFP, describing the essence of the accusations.
She added that all the defendants planned to appeal as soon as possible.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny said the case targeted an "invented terrorist organization."
"Any minister in the Russian government is ten times more of a criminal and a threat to public order than these guys," he wrote on Twitter.
The "Network" affair is one of several cases initiated by the FSB.
Critics say it is similar to another case against an alleged extremist organisation called "The New Greatness" whose young members have also been accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
Critics say both cases have been fabricated by the security services using secret witnesses and confessions obtained under duress.
© Agence France-Presse
by Marina LAPENKOVA and Maria ANTONOVA