Protesters demanded the release of political prisoners including anti-government activists detained in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration. (MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)

The defendants sit in glass cages, bored or distracted, paying little heed to the case. It’s as though they’re extras in a tedious experimental theater production.

The prosecutors, two young women with bouncy ponytails who teeter on spike heels, appear to adhere to a script. The policemen testifying against the defendants don’t even remember most of them, but that doesn’t matter.

Conviction is almost certain.

So goes the trial of the Bolotnaya 12, a dozen once-ordinary Russians who were arrested at a demonstration on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as president in May 2012. Most of them are charged with rioting and assaulting police on Bolotnaya Square, not far from the Kremlin. Nearly all are in jail, denied bail despite a lack of previous criminal records.

That protest was just one in a string of large demonstrations against dishonest elections and government corruption that had begun five months earlier. All the previous protests had proceeded peacefully. Detentions, when they happened, had lasted for only days.

But the May 6 march to Bolotnaya was a direct challenge to Putin as he was about to reclaim his Kremlin office, and this time the response was severe. About two dozen protesters in all were charged, but the Bolotnaya 12 are the first large group to go on trial.

The defendants’ supporters describe the proceedings as theater of the absurd, contending that the 12 were plucked out of obscurity to serve as examples of the peril of opposing the Putin government. The Pussy Riot case of last year, in which members of a punk-rock group were sentenced to two years for staging a protest in a Moscow cathedral, sent a similar message, but the Bolotnaya 12 defendants are remarkable for their anonymity and the seeming randomness of their arrests.

Since they were charged, Moscow’s protest movement has withered. On Sunday, perhaps 10,000 people turned out to call for the freeing of political prisoners, the Bolotnaya 12 prominent among them. Earlier protests had drawn several times that.

Just as the arrests marked a turning point, ushering in a period of repressive laws and revealing a more vindictive Kremlin, so are the verdicts expected to provide a signal of what lies ahead. Will the authorities decide they have made their point, impose suspended sentences and send a conciliatory message? Or will the defendants receive the full sentences — up to 13 years?

‘Why these people?’

The May 2012 protest had begun as peacefully as all the others. A few hours into it, with tens of thousands gathering, police confronted demonstrators on a bridge leading to Bolotnaya Square. Washington Post reporters standing about 100 yards away saw the riot police, wearing protective gear, begin surging into the crowd, batons raised, plucking out protesters and dragging them away.

The police said that when they prevented the crowd from heading toward the Kremlin, the officers were assaulted with chunks of asphalt. Protesters say some asphalt was thrown, but not by any of the accused in the current case.

“Why these people?” said Maria Arkhipova, a 48-year-old volunteer with the activist May 6 Committee, who has been documenting the trial since it began in June. They were appointed as culprits, she said, because they were among more than 500 people briefly detained that day. “They are people who cannot stand violence. They were trying to defend others.”

It was the second demonstration for Andrei Barabanov, now 23, and his girlfriend, Katya Minsharapova. The two were separated as the clash began, said Andrei’s mother, Tatyana Barabanova, a 55-year-old hotel bookkeeper.

“Andrei was in the middle of it,” his mother said. “He started to defend himself, and he was arrested.”

A judge released him the next morning. Andrei reported that he had been beaten, but his complaint was ignored, his mother said. They thought that was the end of it.

On the evening of June 28, 2012, the electricity went out at their 13th-floor apartment in a far-off Moscow suburb. When the mother went into the hall to check the fuse box, she said, about eight riot police officers pushed her aside and entered the apartment.

Andrei has been in jail ever since, accused of assaulting police officers, including kicking one named Ivan Kruglov. When Kruglov testified Sept. 19, he said he was attacked by a group of people. He could not recognize any of the defendants, he said.

Another of the accused, Vladimir Akimenkov, 26, is partially blind and his vision is worsening. One day in September he told the judge he had been able to take a shower for the first time in nearly three weeks. Detention conditions, the judge said, were irrelevant to the case.

The oldest defendant is Sergei Krivov, who is 52 and has a doctorate in physics. He is accused of grabbing a baton from one policeman and shoving another in the chest, charges he denies.

The accused have attorneys, but they don’t believe they will get a fair hearing. Krivov recently went on a hunger strike to protest what he calls a rigged trial.

‘Stronger and braver now’

One Wednesday afternoon, the defendants, confined in two glass boxes in the courtroom, paid scant attention to the proceedings. Some read. One fell asleep. A riot policeman named Anton Derkach took the stand to testify against Yaroslav Belousov, a Moscow State University student. The police officer said he had been hit by an object thrown from the crowd, but he couldn’t identify Belousov.

“I did not see him violating any rules,” Derkach said, “but I can guess he might have.” He couldn’t remember any details of the clash, he said. “It was a year and a half ago.”

Andrei Barabanov’s mother had arrived at court that day, wearing all black, carrying a plastic grocery bag full of candy, to give out to the other relatives and spectators.

“I miss him so much,” Barabanova said of her son. “I come to the trial just so I can wave at him.”

The relatives have become a small community bound together by despair.

“We do not have a system of justice,” Barabanova said. “I didn’t know that before. The only positive thing is I have met very nice people, people who care about others.”

Barabanova has grown close to Olga Gushchina, whose son Ilya Gushchin, a 25-year-old court psychologist, was arrested later — in February — and has not yet gone to trial. The investigators who came for him were so polite that Gushchina served them breakfast. “They ate happily,” she said. That evening her son was charged.

The arrests and trials, said Gushchina, are a warning from the authorities: “Be quiet, or you’ll end up like them,” she said.

Instead, the women say, they have been transformed.

“They taught us a lesson,” Gushchina said. “We are stronger and braver now.”

Another protester at Bolotnaya, Mikhail Kosenko, 38, got a separate trial because he had a mental disability. On Oct. 8, he was convicted of taking part in mass riots. He was sentenced to indefinite treatment in a psychiatric hospital, which his supporters described as a return to the punitive psychiatry of Soviet times.

The verdicts for the Bolotnaya 12 are next. No one knows when they will occur.