MOSCOW (AFP) ― Russia on Saturday faced a storm of international criticism after sentencing three members of the Pussy Riot punk band to two years in prison for a political protest in an Orthodox cathedral.
Speculation mounted that the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, could have their sentences cut on appeal after the damaging global reaction, with the Russian public also questioning the sentence.
Judge Marina Syrova said the three young protesters had shown a “clear disrespect toward society” by staging a “Punk Prayer” calling on the Virgin Mary to drive out Vladimir Putin just weeks ahead of his election in March to a third presidential term.
The United States called the sentences “disproportionate,” while Britain, France and the European Union also said the punishment was excessive and questioned Russia’s rights record.
|The slogan on a demonstrator’s hand reads: “They are your children, Russia!” during an action in support of the punk band Pussy Riot in front of Khamovniki district court on Friday. (ITAR-TASS-Yonhap News)|
Prominent supporters of the women spoke out to criticise the sentence.
International pressure “may not have secured the outcome many people wanted to see. But we need to keep up the fight,” wrote British Member of Parliament Kerry McCarthy, who attended the trial, on blog site LabourList.
Newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev, who co-owns Russia’s Novaya Gazeta daily and owns Britain’s Independent daily, called the women “prisoners of conscience” on Twitter.
Yoko Ono, the avant-garde artist and widow of John Lennon, posted a message of support to Samutsevich on Twitter on Saturday, saying: “You have won for all of us women in the world.”
Russian media and politicians raised the possibility of the women’s sentence being reduced.
“There is a feeling that the Moscow city court, after the lawyers’ appeal, will cut (the sentence) down to only one year,” Komsomolskaya Pravda daily said Saturday. “On appeal they will minimise the defendants’ sentence so much that they will come out a month after the court,” predicted lawyer and member of the Public Chamber advisory body, Denis Dvornikov, cited by the Interfax news agency.
Leading ruling party member Andrei Isayev on Friday called the sentence “harsh” and noted that Putin had yet to fully speak his mind on the case.
Putin this month said the band members should not be “judged too severely” while stressing that he strongly disagreed with what they did.
“He has no right to impose his views on the court,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the PublicPost.ru website.
The president could pardon the women, but defence lawyer Mark Feigin told Moscow Echo liberal radio that the women had ruled this out.
“They clearly said that there will be no pardon, nor will they appeal to him (to Putin) for a pardon,” he stressed.
While the Patriarch Kirill is in Poland, senior Orthodox Church clerics have indicated they would prefer a lighter punishment.
The senior Orthodox Church council issued a formal statement Friday calling on the state “to show mercy for the convicted within the framework of the law.”
“The whole verdict is based on a very shaky foundation: on the assertion that the punk group members feel hatred towards all Orthodox Christians and Orthodoxy as a whole,” reformist priest Andrei Kurayev said Saturday on his blog.
Ordinary Russians also criticised the verdict.
A poll by Moscow Echo radio station on Saturday found 77 percent of listeners considered it “impossible to agree with the verdict.”
Moscow police released more than 50 protesters detained outside the court Friday, with some charged over public order offences, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.
Among those detained was chess champion turned opposition leader Garry Kasparov, who now awaits further questioning, said Alexander Ryklin of the Solidarity political movement led by Kasparov.
“So far there is no charge against him,” Ryklin told AFP.
“They have called him in for questioning at the police station on Monday.”
Police accused Kasparov of biting an officer on the ear during his detention, Interfax reported Friday, with Kasparov denying the claim and complaining of being beaten.
Kasparov told Moscow Echo radio he was suffering from back pain after his detention and was planning to launch three separate court actions over violations.
British comedian Stephen Fry expressed his fury on Twitter, writing that “Gary Kasparov, the greatest mental athlete ever, (has been) arrested for protesting at the tyrannical 2 years.”