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Veronika Nikulshina

A Moscow court has sentenced four members of the Pussy Riot protest group to 15 days in jail for briefly interrupting the July 15 World Cup final between France and Croatia by running onto the pitch wearing fake police uniforms.

The group carried out the protest stunt early in the second half of the final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking officials from around the world.

Pussy Riot immediately posted messages on social media claiming responsibility for the protest and issuing a list of six political demands, including the release of all political prisoners in Russia, ending arrests at peaceful rallies, and allowing “political competition in the country.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Pussy Riot Claims Field Invasion (click to view)

The four protesters also have been banned by the court from attending sporting events for three years.

They were identified as Veronika Nikulshina, Olga Pakhtusova, Olga Kurachyova, and Pyotr Verzilov.

Kurachyova said their stunt was meant to promote freedom of speech and to condemn the policies of FIFA, soccer's world governing body.

"FIFA is involved in unfair games, unfortunately. FIFA is a friend of heads of states who carry out repression, who violate human rights," Kurachyova told reporters on July 16. "It is a pity that we disrupted the sportsmen."

The court found the four guilty of "grossly violating the rules for spectators' behavior" and were given the maximum punishment possible under the charge.

Verzilov is the founder of the Mediazona website, which reports on the trials of rights activists in Russia.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa
Hairullo Mirsaidov

Two media watchdogs have condemned a 12-year prison sentence against Tajik journalist Hairullo Mirsaidov and called for his immediate release, saying the charges against him for alleged financial crimes were politically motivated.

In a July 16 statement, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the National Association of Independent Mass Media in Tajikistan (NANSMIT) said Mirsaidov's sentence was "an extremely grave threat to press freedom in Tajikistan."

Mirsaidov was sentenced by a Tajik court on July 11 after being found guilty of embezzling and misusing state funds, and of making false reports to police.

The 39-year-old Mirsaidov said the case against him was retaliation for his critical reporting about government corruption.

Mirsaidov's arrest in December 2017 came shortly after he published an open letter accusing senior officials of corruption in Tajikistan's northern province of Sughd.

"Despite the official denials, the extraordinary severity of this sentence shows that this trial was politically motivated," said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

"We call for Hairullo Mirsaidov's immediate release and for an impartial review of the case on appeal," he said. "We also urge the Tajik authorities to guarantee the primacy of the law and the freedom to do investigative reporting on matters in the public interest."

NANSMIT director Nuriddin Karshiboev said: "We followed Hairullo Mirsaidov's trial closely and we saw how his criticism of corruption rebounded on him. This verdict has buried all hope of combatting corruption. No one will now dare to draw attention to corrupt behavior."

Mirsaidov is an independent journalist and a former correspondent of Asia-Plus and Germany's Deutsche Welle radio.

Mirsaidov also leads Tajikistan's team for KVN, a stand-up-comedy competition that originated among university students in the Soviet Union and is still popular in many former Soviet republics.

His case has drawn international attention, with London-based Amnesty International describing him as "a prisoner of conscience who is being punished solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression."

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said journalists like Mirsaidov "should be recognized for the important work they do, not locked up on bogus charges."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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