Members of the punk band Pussy Riot, (from left to right) Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, sit in a glass-walled cage at a court hearing in Moscow on Friday. (Reuters)
Moscow, Aug. 17: A Moscow judge handed down stiff prison sentences of two years this afternoon for three young women who staged a protest against Vladimir V. Putin in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour last February and whose jailing and trial on hooliganism charges have generated worldwide criticism of constraints on political speech in Russia.
While a guilty verdict against the three women, members of a band called Pussy Riot, was widely expected, suspense had built over how severe a punishment they would receive. Prosecutors had demanded three-year prison terms, but President Vladimir V. Putin had weighed in on the side of leniency.
But the judge, Marina Syrova, showed little sympathy for the trio, and it was not immediately clear whether the sentences would prompt a reaction on Moscow’s streets.
The case has become a touchstone in the political conflict that began in Russia after disputed parliamentary elections last December. That is partly because of the sympathetic appearance of the defendants — two are mothers of young children — partly because their group uses music to carry its message, and because it has pitted them against a united power-structure: the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
As the judge read the lengthy verdict, hundreds of demonstrators had gathered outside the courthouse and shouted: “Free Pussy Riot!”
Riot police officers arrested dozens of them, including the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is active in the Russian political Opposition. Kasparov fought with the police and appeared to be beaten as he was bundled into a police vehicle.
Near the start of the highly anticipated proceedings, the judge said that Pussy Riot’s so-called punk prayer in Moscow’s main cathedral had amounted to the crime of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. She repeated that charge today in her verdict. Because the women acted as a group, the maximum sentence under the law is seven years in prison.
Amnesty International condemned the sentences, which a spokeswoman said show “that the Russian authorities will stop at no end to suppress dissent and stifle civil society”. The women have been in jail since March and a chorus of supporters, including some of the music world’s biggest stars, have demanded their release.
Rallies in support of the women were held in dozens of cities around the world today.
While the case has allowed opponents of Putin, the President, to portray his government as squelching free speech and presiding over a rigged judicial system, it has also handed the government an opportunity to portray its political opponents as obscene, disrespectful rabble-rousers, liberal urbanites backed by the West in a conspiracy against the Russian state and the Russian church.
The saga began in February when the women infiltrated Moscow’s main cathedral wearing colourful balaclavas, and pranced around in front of the golden Holy Doors leading into the altar, dancing, chanting and lip-syncing for what would later become a music video of a profane song in which they beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin. Security guards quickly stripped them of their guitars, but the video was completed with splices of footage from another church.
As the trial opened, the women — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alyokhina, 24 — apologised, saying they had never intended to offend the Orthodox Church but rather sought to make a political statement against Putin and against the church patriarch, Kirill I, for supporting Putin in his campaign for a third term as President.
But prosecutors and lawyers for religious people who where described as victims of the stunt said the women were motivated by religious hatred. The defendants were accused of committing “moral harm” and even of practicing Satanism.
Like defendants in almost all Russian criminal trials, the women were held in the courtroom in a glass enclosure. As the trial continued, the women seemed emboldened by their mounting international support.
In a closing statement, Tolokonnikova, the most outspoken of the defendants, railed against repression in Russia.“To my deepest regret, this mock trial is close to the standards of the Stalinist troikas,” she said.