A Russian regional court’s "heinous" sentencing of seven activists to long prison terms has ignited outrage on social media, with some critics drawing parallels to the show trials of the Stalin era.
The verdicts in the case, known as "Set" (a Russian word for Network), are the latest in a series of Russian court decisions over the past year against citizens sharing anti-government views that have provoked a sharp response from segments of society.
A district court in Penza -- an industrial city of about half-a-million people some 625 kilometers southeast of Moscow -- sentenced the seven men on February 10 to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years, lengths normally given to violent criminals.
The judge found the men guilty of planning terrorist attacks to destabilize the country during the 2018 presidential election and the soccer World Cup, which Russia hosted the same year.
Authorities say they belong to a group called the Network, but the men all contend that such a group does not exist and that, although they share antifascist views, they mainly play outdoor war games together.
Human rights organizations and activists say the case was fabricated by the state to send a signal to members of society who express political views that run counter to those of the government.
Several of the convicted men said members of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB, and other officers tortured them to extract a confession. The men said they were beaten and subjected to electric shock.
Aleksei Minyaylo, an opposition politician, said following the sentencing that "1937 is back," a reference to the year the Stalinist show trials beganand the height of a repressive period known as the Great Terror.
"If we will sit and be afraid, everything will get incomparably worse," Minyaylo said.
The men -- who are aged 23 to 30 -- include a cook, a former sailor, a musician, a shooting instructor, and a punk-music enthusiast.
They were arrested in several swoops in late 2017. The FSB claimed they were anarchists who sought to overthrow the government and ran terrorist cells in other cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Anatoly Vakhterov, a lawyer for Ilya Shakursky, said the men played airsoft -- a competitive team shooting sport in which participants try to eliminate opposing players with replica guns that use plastic projectiles -- in the woods and gave each other fighter roles and nicknames.
The prosecutors said the men possessed real guns and grenades to carry out their planned terrorist attacks. Defense lawyers and relatives said the real weapons were planted by the officers.
"They will now go to prison, and we will carry on with our lives knowing that [the authorities] can put you in jail for anything, whether you are a cook or a punk fan. Especially if your beliefs differ even just a bit," said former state TV journalist Yekaterina Gordeyeva.
Dmitry Pchelintsev, whom the FSB called the ringleader, said masked men in the detention center stuffed gauze pads in his mouth and applied electric shocks to his toes that caused a "paralyzing pain" in his legs.
Pchelintsev claimed the masked men then began pulling down his underwear to do the same to his genitals before he confessed to planning a terrorist attack.
Members of human rights organizations who visited the men said their bruises and bodily marks, including burns, were consistent with torture.
"Before, they tortured you in a basement, but now they do it in front of the whole world," said Sergei Vilkov, a journalist who called the matter the "primary political" case in Russia.
Pchelintsev was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
"We have to be absolutely clear here. An 18-year jail term for a 27-year-old who has neither killed, shot, or beaten anybody, nor stolen billions --unlike most of the heroic representatives of various elites — is pure Stalinism," said Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst.
Soviet courts, Kolesnikov said, did not even give such harsh sentences during the reigns of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, who headed the Soviet Union in the decades after Stalin's death.
Maria Eismont, a defense attorney who represented jailed activist Konstantin Kotov in another case, called the long sentences "heinous" and said they were meant to shock and awe those citizens who hold views opposed by the government.
"In fact, this is largely why such sentences were given to them: so that that segment of society that cares [about human rights] feels all this: horror, helplessness, and apathy," she said.
Some activists say cases such of this could force people with similar views to leave the country.
Hope Dies Last?
Russia has backtracked over the past year on some cases and convictions seen as political amid widespread outrage.
A drug charge against independent journalist Ivan Golunov was dropped in June after a protest erupted over clear evidence that the narcotics were planted on the reporter by officers.
In December, a Moscow judge gave a suspended sentence to university student and popular YouTube blogger Yegor Zhukov, who was charged with "extremism" for his anti-Kremlin videos.
Then last month, President Vladimir Putin ordered the Prosecutor-General's Office to review the sentencing of Kotov, who was given four years in prison in September 2019 for participating in more than one unsanctioned protest within a 180-day period. Prosecutors have asked a court to reduce Kotov's sentence to one year.