Russians Convicted for Seizing Latvian Church Get Reduced Sentences

RIGA, Latvia - Latvia's Supreme Court on Thursday reduced from terrorism to hooliganism the sentences of three Russian nationals who last year occupied a landmark church with what turned out to be a fake grenade.

Maxim Zhurkin and Sergey Solovey had their sentences reduced from 15 to six years while the sentence of Dmitry Gafarov, a minor at the time, was reduced from five years to one year.

All are members of the pro-communist National Bolshevik movement.

The three men admitted to border violations when, in the run-up to celebrations marking Independence Day in Latvia, they slipped off a train en route to Russia's Kaliningrad enclave and occupied the bell-tower of a 13th century church in the heart of Riga.

The three demanded Latvia withdraw from NATO negotiations, improve conditions for its Russian-speaking community, who account for about a third of the country's 2.4 million people, and release Stalin-era agents on trial for genocide during the Soviet rule.

Boris Tsilevichs, a lawmaker and a minority rights campaigner, welcomed the Supreme Court ruling, saying the original sentences had been too severe.

"It is enough to show clearly that Latvia doesn't tolerate such behavior. I don't think any one will try to repeat it," he said.

The earlier convictions were the first for terrorism since Latvia regained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. ((c) 2001 Agence France Presse)