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Kremlin's heavy hand against opponents

As members of the National Bolshevik Party flee to Ukraine, its supporters say arrests are unfounded and smack of repression.

MOSCOW // It was by most accounts nothing more than an ordinary drunken brawl, noteworthy, perhaps, only for the curious detail that fire jugglers were involved. On the night of November 30, 2008, a group of young people had been celebrating at a birthday party at a central Moscow apartment not far from the Kremlin when the often incendiary combination of alcohol and young male hormones led to an argument between two of the party-goers.

The dispute, witnesses say, escalated into fisticuffs on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, where several of the celebrators had gone to put on a fire-juggling show for the birthday boy. About 30 people joined the skirmish, though there was ultimately little carnage: one young man suffered mild concussion, another had his nose broken, another broke his finger. The combatants left the scene shortly thereafter.

Nadezhda Alexeyeva, who attended the party, said she had forgotten the whole affair when police knocked on her door four months later and arrested her husband, Pavel Zherebin, a left-wing opposition activist, on charges of assault and hooliganism in connection with the brawl. The arrest came just days before an opposition rally in Moscow organised by The Other Russia, a coalition of anti-Kremlin groups.

In what rights activists and even mainstream Russia politicians have called a case of naked retribution for political activities, a Moscow court in October sentenced Zherebin, 26, to four years in prison for participating in the fight. The remarkably harsh sentence, Zherebin's family and lawyer say, came despite requests by the injured parties that the judge halt the case against Zherebin and his two fellow defendants, Mikhail Pulin and Alyona Goryacheva, also opposition activists, who each received three and a half year sentences.

"Everyone was partying together, and then everyone fought one another," said Ms Alexeyeva, who gave birth to the couple's son while her husband was in pre-trial detention. "It was just a run-of-the-mill fight. How can you justify such a sentence?" The three convicted activists were all former members of the National Bolshevik Party, a radical left-wing youth group founded by a writer and opposition politician, Eduard Limonov, that was deemed an "extremist" organisation by the Russian government and banned in 2007.

The group's activists, who are notorious for their non-violent, guerilla political stunts, say they are being systematically targeted by Russian law enforcement authorities for their political views. They claim that about 150 of their fellow activists are imprisoned on trumped-up charges for their political views. Several other National Bolsheviks have fled to neighbouring Ukraine, whose pro-western government has granted them political asylum.

Most of the alleged political prisoners in the National Bolshevik ranks have been jailed in direct connection with anti-Kremlin protests. What makes these latest convictions ominous, however, is that criminal charges completely unrelated to ideology or political activities were used as a pretext to throw the book at government critics, said Sergei Panchenko, a lawyer for Mr Pulin. "This is a tactic they used before the Great Terror," Mr Panchenko said, referring to the Stalinist repressions in the 1930s. "They couldn't find enough evidence for political crimes, so they stuck them with ordinary criminal statutes."

In the initial indictment against Mr Zherebin and his fellow defendants, prosecutors attempted to classify their roles in the drunken fight as a hate crime motivated by ideology, race, nationality, religion or social standing, an aggravating factor that would allow for longer prison sentences. "They tried to prove that the National Bolsheviks don't like fire jugglers and that that was the reason they supposedly attacked them," said Zherebin's attorney, Dmitry Agranovksy.

In the end, however, Judge Yulia Novichkova at Moscow's Zamoskvoretsky District Court disregarded prosecutors' claims of a hate crime, even noting in her verdict that the three had no previous criminal records, had positive character references and that Zherebin had a newborn baby. The character references came from the prominent Soviet-era dissident Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a member of the Kremlin's human rights council, and Vladimir Kashin, a Communist member of parliament, among others.

"After all that, the judge announced a four-year prison sentence," Ms Alexeyeva said. "It was a colossal shock." Attorneys for the defendants have appealed the verdict, which will be considered this month in Moscow City Court, a spokeswoman for the Moscow city prosecutor's office said. She declined to comment on whether prosecutors would also appeal in order to have the charges reclassified as hate crimes.

Ms Alexeyeva said her husband's imprisonment over such a minor incident is particularly ironic given calls by Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, to restore the country's impressive scientific institutions, which withered away after the collapse of the Soviet Union collapsed. When he was arrested, Zherebin was in the process of finishing his dissertation in the chemistry department of Moscow State University, the country's most prestigious institute of higher learning. His studies focused on nanotechnology, a sphere the Russian government has been promoting for several years as a catalyst for the country's modernisation.

In the meantime, Ms Alexeyeva is living with her in-laws in the industrial city of Tula, 200km south of Moscow, raising their son, Felix, now five months old. "It's very hard, and not just because of the finances. Your husband helps with all of the duties of raising a child, not with money." cschreck@thenational.ae