Updated at: 04/25/2013 5:06 PM
By JIM HEINTZ
(AP) MOSCOW - While one Russian court imposed heavy fines on the country’s only independent election-watching group and another heard contentious testimony in the trial of a top opposition leader, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday defended himself against accusations that he is cracking down on dissent.
In a nationally televised call-in session lasting nearly five hours, Putin said: "People aren’t put behind bars for political reasons. People get sentenced not for their political views or actions, but for abusing law."
But the fairness of Russia’s laws and legal system were at the heart of two prominent court cases taking place the same day.
In one, the election-monitoring group Golos was fined 300,000 rubles (about $10,000) for violating a law requiring that non-governmental organizations involved in political activities and receiving money from abroad must register as a foreign agent.
It was the first penalty imposed under the law, passed after Putin returned to the Kremlin last year. It was one of several moves appearing to be aimed at opposition members, including a law hugely raising fines for taking part in unauthorized demonstrations.
The measure is seen by many as a move to limit critics and undermine their credibility. Critics say its definition of political activity is so loose that it could be used against almost any NGO and say the term "foreign agent" tars groups’ images.
The law was passed in the wake of the major anti-Putin demonstrations that broke out in December 2011 and continued through his inauguration.
One of the protests’ most prominent figures, blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, is on trial in the city of Kirov for allegedly heading a criminal group that embezzled 16 million rubles ($500,000) from a state-owned timber company.
A key prosecution witness contradicted himself in court Thursday, but then insisted that any inconsistencies were because of stress. Navalny said the contradictions demonstrate that the case is a frame-up.
Golos deputy executive director Grigory Melkonyants said the verdict against his group appeared to have been predetermined, noting that the judge imposed the fine after no more than 15 minutes’ deliberation.
"It seems that she knew in advance which decision she would come to no matter what evidence we showed in court," he told The Associated Press.
The court later imposed a separate fine of 100,000 rubles (about $3,000) on Golos head Liliya Shibanova.
Both fines stem from Golos receiving (EURO)50,000 ($65,470) in award money from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, which supports people persecuted because of their opinions. Golos claimed that it transferred the money back as soon as it reached its account and the Norwegian group said on its Twitter account that the case was a "farce trial."
Putin dismissed concerns about the foreign agent law, saying: "What’s so bad about it? Let them say how much money they got and how they spent it."
The witness in the Navalny trial, Vyacheslav Opalev, was given a four-year suspended sentence in December after pleading guilty to conspiring with Navalny to steal timber from the state-owned company.
On Thursday, Opalev told the court he was forced into a deal by Navalny to buy timber at artificially low prices, rather than colluding with him, as he had declared in his written statement last year.
Opalev did not mention his role in the conspiracy, saying that he "has been under a lot of stress" in the past two years, "has forgotten a lot of things and would like to forget everything as soon as possible."
Putin in his annual call-in show on Thursday expressed confidence the Navalny trial would be "extremely objective" and said that he had talked with the prosecutor general’s office about it.
The case stems from Navalny’s role as an adviser in 2009 to the governor of the region that includes the city of Kirov. Charges first brought in May 2011 alleged that Navalny had forced Opalev, director of the state-owned timber company Kirovles, to sign a disadvantageous contract that deprived the company of 1.3 million rubles ($40,000).
Investigators dismissed those charges in April 2012 and then refiled them less than two months later. The new indictment says that Navalny conspired with Opalev to launder the proceeds from the sale of timber through a holding company headed by co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov.
The prosecutors then asked the judge to read out the written statement Opalev submitted last year, which listed in detail his dealings with Navalny. This stood in stark contrast to his inability to remember any of the details when facing the court Thursday.
When questioned by Navalny, who is a lawyer himself, on the inconsistencies between his court testimony and his earlier written statement, Opalev repeatedly replied, "I confirm what I said in the written testimony."
Speaking to the court, Navalny accused Opalev of giving false testimony against him "to dodge criminal prosecution in the case that the Kirov administration opened against him."
Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Alexander Roslyakov in Kirov contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)