Russian court hands prison terms to youth group members

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Yuliy Boyarshinov, right, and Viktor Filinkov, members of a left-wing group Set (Network) listen a court verdict from inside a glass cage in the Western regional military court in St.Petersburg, Russia, Monday, June 22, 2020. Members of the left-wing youth group Set (Network) were accused of terrorism, in a case human rights advocates believe to be fabricated and based on testimony elicited by torture. (AP Photo/David Frenkel)

ST. PETERSBURG – A Russian court convicted two members of a left-wing youth group of terrorism Monday in a case that human rights groups called fabricated and based on coerced testimony.

A three-judge panel in the military court in St. Petersburg — in Russia, military courts handle all terrorism-related charges — found Victor Filinkov, 25, and Yuly Boyarshinov, 28, guilty of membership in a terrorist organization. Filinkov was handed a seven-year prison term, while Boyarshinov, who was also found guilty of possession of explosives, was sentenced to five and a half years behind bars.

Both were said to belong to the Set (Network) group, seven members of which were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms earlier this year in Penza, a city 500 kilometres (310 miles) southeast of Moscow.

The group was accused of preparing to carry out attacks during Russia’s March 2018 presidential election and when Russia hosted the World Cup soccer tournament later that year, but the investigators failed to document those early claims during the trial.

Some of the defendants initially pleaded guilty to the charges, but later withdrew their confessions and said they were tortured while in the custody of the FSB, Russia's security service, into incriminating themselves. The case against the group was largely based on these confessions.

The case has elicited a lot of outrage and prompted several protests over the past few years. Earlier this year, human rights advocates wrote a letter to President Vladimir Putin, demanding an investigation of possible torture of the group's members. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in response that Putin did initiate a probe into the allegations. It remains unclear what the findings were.

The verdict on Monday once again sparked protests, with up to 80 people gathering near the courthouse and chanting “Shame!” and “Freedom for political prisoners!”. Filip Shchelkanov, one of the supporters of the group, told The Associated Press he was sure they were tortured. “They are not guilty of terrorism,” said Shchelkanov, 32.

About 30 people have been detained, according to media reports. Footage showed police officers in riot gear dragging protesters to police vans.

Yevgenia Kulakova, Filinkov's lawyer, said the defense would appeal the verdict.

“The materials of this case were fabricated not only at the stage of the preliminary investigation, but the court itself falsified the materials,” Kulakova said.