Moscow, 9 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The judges were expected to take two days to read the verdict, but the defendants did not have to wait that long.
After just two hours, the court sentenced eight defendants to between 18 and 42 months in jail. The other 31 received suspended sentences and were immediately released.
Relatives of the young activists, most of whom are barely in their 20s, broke into applause and tears upon hearing the verdict. Many had feared much tougher sentences after the state prosecutor demanded prison terms of up to five years.
Dmitrii Agranovskii, one of the defense lawyers, has maintained that his clients are innocent and said the defense team will appeal the ruling. He said that his clients had previously announced their visit and peacefully entered the building with the intention of speaking to officials.
But he told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he and his colleagues were, on the whole, happy with the verdict -- although not without a touch of sarcasm.
"We are very happy. Innocent people spent only one year in detention, they could have spent longer -- we know the realities of our government," Agranovskii said. "There was nothing criminal in their actions, this is totally obvious. Besides, one should not forget that eight people, including three young women, are still in detention. I am happy with the fact that my clients were freed, but nonetheless, they spent a whole year in detention without having committed the smallest crime."
The National Bolshevik Party (NBP) is a radical youth movement known for its flamboyant antigovernment protests, which include throwing tomatoes, eggs, juice, and other foods at political foes.
Its most audacious protest, for which the 39 were standing trial, came on 4 December 2004, when activists peacefully seized one of the buildings of the presidential administration in Moscow. They locked themselves inside, waved a banner reading "Putin, Quit Your Job," and threw portraits of officials out the windows of the building.
Eduard Limonov, the ultranationalist Russian writer at the helm of the NBP, claims his groups has as many as 35,000 followers -- commonly referred to in Russia as "NatsBols" or "limonovtsi." Others say the numbers are much lower.
The NBP started in 1994 as a neo-fascist organization. Today, however, it calls itself an opposition group that strives for democracy and justice, and it formally rejects violence.
But the party's provocative stunts have nonetheless riled the Kremlin and in June the movement was outlawed on extremism charges. This has led many to view yesterday's verdict, however mild, as obvious retribution for the NBP's spectacular political protests.
Vladimir Pribylovskii, the director of the Panorama think tank in Moscow, thinks the verdict is over the top.
"The authorities are afraid of everything," Pribylovskii said. "They are afraid of these few hundred young people with an exacerbated sense of social justice who don't really do anything else other than throw tomatoes and chicken eggs. Hooliganism, yes, but this deserves 15 days, and they sentence them to three years in prison. They see a threat in everything at the Kremlin, including in the tomatoes thrown by National Bolsheviks."
But the most scathing denunciation of the verdict came from Limonov himself. He said the ruling was politically motivated and branded it a "reprisal unworthy of a government."
If the ruling was indeed an effort to scare NBP into submission, the authorities may have missed the mark -- many of the young activists released from jail yesterday have said they plan to continue political activity.
Factbox: National Bolshevik Party
- Created in 1994 by radical writer Eduard Limonov, Eurasianism ideologue Aleksandr Dugin (who soon left the party), and rock musicians Yegor Letov and Sergei Kurikhin.
- Limonov was a member of the Soviet literary underground in the 1960s. He emigrated to the United States in the 1970s, where he became close to American Trotskyites and anarchists.
- Limonov's best-selling novel, "It's Me, Eddie," has been translated into 15 languages.
- The party's official publication is "Limonka" the name, literally "little lemon," is also idiomatic Russian for "grenade."
- The NBP is believed to have several thousand followers, most of them young. They are popularly referred to as "limonovtsii."
- Started as a neo-fascist organization, the party now prefers to describe itself as an opposition group that supports democracy. Its ideology is a mixture of totalitarian and fascist symbols, geopolitical dogma, leftist ideas, and national-patriotic demagoguery.
- President Vladimir Putin is one of the party's constant targets. The party's website lists Putin's "crimes" as election fraud, reforming the Soviet-era benefits system, and the government's response to the Dubrovka and Beslan tragedies.
- The party has gained fame by staging provocative protests and publicly challenging its foes. Some of its favorite stunts include throwing eggs, tomatoes, and mayonnaise at prominent public figures.
- Its emblem combines the Nazis' red-and-white flag with the Soviet hammer and sickle.
- Authorities have continually cracked down on the party. In August 2004, 39 activists were arrested and charged with "attempting to seize power and organize a mass disturbance" after breaking into the presidential administration building.
- In June, the party was outlawed on extremism charges by a Moscow court. Russia's Supreme Court confirmed the ban in November.