MOSCOW -- A Russian court has reduced the sentence of Lev Ponomaryov, a prominent human rights defender and critic of President Vladimir Putin, from 25 days to 16 days in jail for organizing a protest against the arrests of activists -- drawing strong criticism from campaigners.
In a December 7 ruling, Moscow's City Court said that it had "changed" the sentence handed down on December 5 by the Tver district court to the 77-year-old Ponomaryov -- the head of the organization For Human Rights -- for repeatedly violating regulations for holding public events and gatherings.
In its decision, the court also said the initial sentence was too harsh.
Ponomaryov's organization has denounced his arrest and sentencing as "absolutely illegal" and suggested he was jailed because he was helping to prepare a new opposition rally set for mid-December.
Presidential human rights council head Mikhail Fedotov has also criticized the verdict, which he called "inexplicable."
Investigators say Ponomaryov organized a demonstration in Moscow on October 28 to support activists of New Greatness and Network, two groups that Russian authorities accuse of extremism.
Ponomaryov was earlier fined for holding a single-person protest against arrests of New Greatness activists.
On October 28, peaceful demonstrations to support members of the two groups were held in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and several other cities across Russia.
Members of the once-obscure New Greatness were arrested in mid-March and charged with the creation of an extremist group. Four of them are in pretrial detention and six are under house arrest.
The activists have said they turned their online chat criticizing the government into a political movement after the move was proposed by one of their members.
Later, it was revealed that the man who proposed the idea, wrote the movement's charter, and rented premises for the movement's gatherings was a special agent of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
The investigation into Network was launched in October 2017.
Investigators say 11 members of the group from St. Petersburg and Penza, 550 kilometers southeast of Moscow, plotted an armed insurrection and bombing campaign during the March presidential election and the 2018 soccer World Cup in June and July.
Network members Dmitry Pchelintsev said last week that he was starting a hunger strike to protest his arrest.