Liberal Russian political activist and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov [advocacy website, in Russian; BBC profile] was sentenced Sunday to 15 days in jail for his part in an unauthorized protest march in Moscow on December 31. Nemtsov, leader of the opposition group Solidarity [advocacy website, in Russian], and an outspoken critic of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin [official website, in Russian; JURIST news archive], was arrested alongside about 20 others on New Year's Eve when they disobeyed police orders to disperse and tried to lead a crowd of more than 2,000 on a march through Pushkin Square. Russian authorities assert that arrests were only made after Nemtsov and other leaders attempted to lead the group through police ranks, but opposition leaders and human rights activists have decried the arrests as baseless and politically motivated [RFE/RL report]. The assembly, which police did permit to proceed in a small square near the Kremlin, was one of a series of assemblies opposition groups have held on the 31st day of the month for the last several years. The timing of the protests is symbolic of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution [text], which guarantees the right to assemble.
Russian authorities continue to draw fire from human rights groups and the Western world for what is seen a increasingly draconian suppression of Putin's rivals. Last week, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky [defense profile; JURIST news archive] and his business partner, Platon Lebedev [defense profile], were convicted and sentenced [JURIST reports] on charges of fraud and embezzlement stemming from their embezzlement of more than $27 billion [AFP report] from Yukos Oil between 1998 and 2003. The men, who were already in prison serving sentences for tax evasion, saw their terms increased by six years in a trial that was widely decried [Movement for Human Rights press release, in Russian; JURIST op-ed] for apparent political motives and failures of due process. They filed an appeal [JURIST report] earlier this week. Nemtsov was arrested in a similar incident [JURIST report] early in February 2010, when he and about 100 others were detained in Moscow as they protested perceived government curtailment of the right to peacably assemble. The actions of the Russian government in breaking up similar protests in December 2009 earned criticism from US President Barack Obama after the founder of Russia's oldest rights group, the Moscow Helsinki Group [advocacy website] 82-year-old Lyudmila Alexeyeva was arrested.