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Moscow court sends 7 to prison for anti-Putin protest, suspends sentence for 8th defendant

ADDS NAME OF DEFENDANT Opposition activist Yaroslav Belousov stands behind bars in a cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, where hearings started against opposition activists detained on May 6, 2012 during a rally at Bolotnaya Square. A Moscow judge on Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, convicted eight anti-government protesters of rioting during a 2012 protest against Vladimir Putin, following a trial seen as part of the Kremlin's efforts to stifle dissent. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

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ADDS NAME OF DEFENDANT Opposition activist Yaroslav Belousov stands behind bars in a cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, where hearings started against opposition activists detained on May 6, 2012 during a rally at Bolotnaya Square. A Moscow judge on Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, convicted eight anti-government protesters of rioting during a 2012 protest against Vladimir Putin, following a trial seen as part of the Kremlin's efforts to stifle dissent. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW - A Russian court on Monday handed down prison sentences of up to four years to seven anti-Putin protesters, including a 22-year-old student who investigators said threw an "unidentified yellow object of spherical shape" at a line of riot police. He insisted it was just a lemon.

Yaroslav Belousov and the six others were among 28 people rounded up after a 2012 protest on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration for a third presidential term. Clashes broke out after police restricted access to Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin, where the protesters had permission to gather.

Hundreds of their supporters gathered outside the courtroom to condemn the trial and the Kremlin's crackdown on opposition since Putin returned to the presidency. As the judge read out sentences, chants of "Shame!" drifted into the courtroom.

About 200 people, including two members of the punk band Pussy Riot who spent nearly two years in prison for their own anti-Putin protest, were briefly detained by police outside court.

Some of them, including members of Pussy Riot and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were later detained again later Monday when protesters attempted to hold an unsanctioned rally outside the Kremlin.

Moscow police said they detained 420 of about 500 demonstrators there.

The lawyer for Belousov, who was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison, said he believed the harsh punishment was in part a Kremlin reaction to the upheaval in neighbouring Ukraine.

"I get tons of Twitter messages that say: you must be punished for Maidan, you must go to jail for Maidan," lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky said, referring to the square in Kyiv that became a symbol of Ukraine's protest movement.

When Russian state television reported on the trial, it often showed footage of the 2012 Moscow protest alongside bloody images of beaten protesters and police in Ukraine.

"With the events on the Maidan as a background, it's even more obvious what all of this could have led to, had it not been for the government's clear, tough response," an anchor on Rossiya television said last week.

An eighth defendant, 20-year-old Anastasia Dukhanina, received a suspended sentence. She had been held under house arrest pending trial, while the seven others have already been in custody for nearly two years.

Belousov was detained the day of the May 6, 2012 protest and quickly released along with several hundred others. He was taken into custody one month later.

"A group of men dressed in black uniforms came to the apartment," said his mother-in-law, Alexandra Likhanova, who lives with Belousov, his wife and their 3-year-old son. "They didn't want to open the door: They have a small child and they were scared."

Evidence at the trial consisted primarily of police testimony and video footage from the rally. Two videos show Belousov bending down to pick up a small yellow object, which he tossed into the crowd. Prosecutors said it was a billiard ball, while the defence argued that it was a lemon and the policeman who claimed to have been hurt had left the fray 10 seconds before it was tossed.

"This version of the billiard ball only shows that they don't have real evidence of a crime," said Likhanova. "So they are forced to think up totally absurd, unreasonable, illogical things."

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