By Nataliya Vasilyeva Associated Press
MOSCOW — A Moscow judge sentenced three members of the provocative punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison each on hooliganism charges on Friday following a trial that has drawn international outrage as an emblem of Russia’s intolerance of dissent.
The trial sparked a wave of protests around the world in support of the feminist rockers, who have been dubbed prisoners of conscience by international rights group. Hundreds of Pussy Riot supporters chanted “Russia without Putin!” amid a heavy police presence outside the courtroom, and several opposition leaders were detained.
The three were arrested in March after a guerrilla performance in Moscow’s main cathedral, high-kicking and dancing while singing a “punk prayer” pleading the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Vladimir Putin, who was elected to a third new term as Russia’s president two weeks later.
Judge Marina Syrova said in her verdict that the three band members “committed hooliganism driven by religious hatred” and offended religious believers. She rejected the women’s arguments that they were protesting the Orthodox Church’s support for Putin and didn’t want to hurt the feelings of believers.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich stood in handcuffs in a glass cage in the courtroom for three hours as the judge read the verdict. They smiled sadly at the testimony of prosecution witnesses accusing them of sacrilege and “devilish dances” in church.
The three women remained calm after the judge announced the sentence. Someone in the courtroom shouted “Shame!”
The charges carried the maximum penalty of seven years in prison, although prosecutors had asked for a three-year sentence.
Putin himself had said the band members shouldn’t be judged too harshly, drawing expectations that the band members could be sentenced to the time they already have spent in custody and freed in courtroom. Skeptics had warned, however, that a mild sentence would look as if Putin was bowing to public pressure — something he has clearly resented throughout his 12-year rule.
On the street outside, the courtroom, police rounded up a few dozen protesters, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is a leading opposition activist, and leftist opposition group leader Sergei Udaltsov.
Amnesty International strongly condemned the court’s ruling, calling it a “bitter blow” for freedom of expression in Russia.
The Pussy Riot case already has inflicted bruising damage to Russia’s esteem overseas and stoked the resentment of opposition partisans who have turned out in a series of massive rallies since last winter.
It also has underlined the vast influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although church and state are formally separate, the church identifies itself as the heart of Russian national identity and critics say its strength effectively makes it a quasi-state entity. Some Orthodox groups and many believers had urged strong punishment for an action they consider blasphemous.
The head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, has made no secret of his strong support for Putin, even praising his presidential terms as “God’s miracle” and has described the performance as part of an assault by “enemy forces” on the church.
Kirill avoided talking to the media as he was leaving Warsaw’s Royal Castle following a ceremony in which he and the head of Poland’s Catholic Church called for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. Microphones were set up for statements in the castle yard and reporters were brought to the site, but Kirill went straight to his car.
Celebrities including Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bjork have called for the band members to be freed, and other protests timed to just before the verdict or soon afterward were being. In the Russian capital activists put the band’s trademark ski masks, or balaclavas, on several statues across town.
Small, but raucous protests were held in a few dozen cities. A few dozen people came out in Barcelona, Spain, a couple hundred in Paris, and a handful in Washington.
“This is all nonsense,” said Boris Akunin, one of Russia’s best known authors. “I can’t believe that in the 21st century a judge in a secular court is talking about devilish movements. I can’t believe that a government official is quoting medieval church councils.”
Before Friday’s proceedings began, defense lawyer Nikolai Polozov said the women “hope for an acquittal but they are ready to continue to fight.”
The case comes in the wake of several recently passed laws cracking down on opposition, including one that raised the fine for taking part in an unauthorized demonstrations by 150 times to 300,000 rubles (about $9,000).
Another measure requires non-government organizations that both engage in vaguely defined political activity and receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.”