Russia activists back in court on controversial 'terror' trial

Viktor Filinkov, 25, and Yuli Boyarshinov, 28, are accused of belonging to the Network group which allegedly plotted an armed uprising during the presidential election in 2018 as well as terror attacks during the World Cup that year

Two Russian leftist activists returned to court Tuesday to face controversial terror charges of belonging to a group that plotted attacks but who supporters say are victims of a security services conspiracy and torture.

Viktor Filinkov, 25, and Yuli Boyarshinov, 28, stand accused of being members of the so-called Network terrorist group which allegedly plotted an armed uprising during the presidential election in 2018 as well as terror attacks during the World Cup the same year.

Some 100 people came to the military court in Saint Petersburg to support the young men, with some chanting "Russia will be free!" and "Free political prisoners!"

The defendants appeared for a long-delayed brief hearing on Tuesday evening, with the next hearing set to open Wednesday morning.

Their trial began in spring last year but proceedings then stalled.

The hearings resumed after earlier this month a court in the central city of Penza jailed seven co-defendants in the same case for between six and 18 years on terror and other charges.

The verdict sparked a huge outcry, with rights groups saying the young men had been convicted of organising a non-existent "terrorist" group and tortured to incriminate themselves in a throwback to Stalin-era practices.

Filinkov, a programmer, and Boyarshinov, an industrial abseiler, have been charged with participating in a terrorist organisation and illegal explosives storage.

Both residents of Saint Petersburg, they were arrested in January 2018 and face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

While Boyarshinov made a confession, Filinkov, a national of Kazakhstan, said he was beaten and subjected to electric shock.

After the hearing, Filinkov's mother Natalya wept, telling AFP: "I only saw him for a second and waved at him."

This month hundreds of people protested the heavy jail terms handed down to the young anarchists outside the headquarters of the FSB security services in Moscow.

Various professional groups including those of scientists, doctors and teachers have signed petitions calling on the authorities to release them.

"If the existing situation is left unchanged, it will cause irreparable damage to relations between society and the state," said a petition signed by lawyers.

The Kremlin has sought to distance itself from the case, with President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying the convicted men could file an appeal.

Memorial, a top rights group, has said there is a clear political motive behind the Network case, pointing to increasing "repression against anarchists and anti-fascists".

The Liberal Mission Foundation said that while the case targeted a minority it posed an "existential threat" to entire Russian society.