MOSCOW : Twelve Russians went on trial in Moscow Thursday accused of violence at a rally on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration last year, in a process condemned by critics as a show trial aimed at suffocating dissent.

Ten defendants - all men - participated in the hearing from inside a glass-walled cage known as an “aquarium” while two more women, who are not under arrest, were seated on a bench.

The case is being heard at the Moscow’s top city court because a district court does not have a cage large enough to accomodate all the suspects, a court spokeswoman said.

Most of the 12 defendants had languished in pre-trial detention for nearly a year and a few hours into Thursday’s hearing the prosecution asked the judge to extend their detention for another six months, the defence said.

The accused are being tried over what the Kremlin calls “mass riots” on Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow during a rally on May 6, 2012.

Thursday’s hearing kicked off what activists have described as the first mass political show trial in Putin’s Russia aimed against ordinary citizens rather than prominent opposition figures.

“It’s a landmark on the path to re-Stalinisation,” prominent rights activist Alexander Podrabinek told AFP. “The trial brings us back to the time of systemic repression against peaceful opponents of the regime.”

“The authorities are trying to thwart mass rallies and intimidate its rank-and-file participants and not only the organisers.”

“It is a show trial,” added Maria Arkhipova. “The case is political but the accusations are criminal.”

The opposition and supporters say the scuffles at the rally came as a result of a provocation and the Kremlin is persecuting innocent people.

Authorities however has said protesters deliberately attacked police and vowed that attacks against law-enforcement agencies will not be tolerated.

“Man-handling of representatives of the authorities is absolutely unacceptable,” Putin said in December.

Top rights group Memorial says the main evidence is based on police testimony which is “extremely contradictory” and cannot be considered impartial.

The case involves a total of 27 people who have come to be known as “Bolotnaya prisoners,” after the name of the square where scuffles broke out.

Two have already confessed and been sentenced to 4 1/2 and 2 1/2 years in prison.

Supporters in the court clapped and chanted “We will win” as the suspects were being led into the courtroom for a preliminary hearing which was closed to the media.

Relatives of the defendants said the reality was still impossible to deal with.

“Our family is overwhelmed by grief that would not go away,” said Yekaterina Tarasova, mother-in-law of Leonid Kovyazin, one of the accused.

“We are expecting anything but we are not ready. How can one be ready for horror?” said Tarasova, whose daughter Yevgeniya married Kovyazin while he was in detention.

As the hearing started, the suspects, dressed casually in T-shirts and slacks, stood in the glass cage, some smiling.

The hearing comes as Alexei Navalny, the most charismatic leader of the protest movement, is also standing trial over embezzlement accusations that could result in a jail term of up to 10 years.

These trials are part of what critics call an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition following Putin’s Kremlin return.

One of Russia’s most prominent economists, Sergei Guriyev, fled to Paris last month, saying he was harassed by investigators over the case of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

His abrupt departure caused tremors among the Russian elites and sparked fears of the beginning of an exodus of the country’s best and brightest.

Former world chess champion and anti-Kremlin activist Garry Kasparov said in Geneva earlier this week he would not be returning to Russia for the time being over fears he could also be investigated.

“Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen a transition from authoritarian style to one-man dictatorship,” said Kasparov.