Human Rights Voices

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Russia, August 17, 2012

Russian Punk Band Is Sentenced to 2 Years in Prison for Anti-Putin Stunt

Original source

The New York Times

A Moscow judge handed down prison sentences of two years on Friday afternoon for three young women who staged a protest against Vladimir V. Putin in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior 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.

As the judge, Marina Syrova, read the lengthy verdict, hundreds of demonstrators 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. Mr. Kasparov fought with the police and appeared to be beaten as he was bundled into a paddy wagon.

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. Because the women acted as a group, the maximum sentence under the law is seven years in prison.

They have been in jail since March and a chorus of supporters, including some of the music world's biggest stars, has demanded their immediate release. Rallies in support of the women were held in dozens of cities around the world on Friday. The case has become a touchstone in the unfolding political drama 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.

While the case has allowed opponents of Mr. 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 colorful 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 Mr. Putin.

Security guards quickly stripped them of their guitars, but the video was completed with splices of footage from another church.

Because of the support they have received from stars like Sting and Madonna, the women of Pussy Riot have become more famous, at least outside Russia, than the opposition figures who led large antigovernment street protests in Moscow throughout the winter and spring.

But while they have become minor heroes in the entertainment world, Pussy Riot is far more political than musical: Its members have never released a song or an album, and they do not seem to have any serious aspirations to do so. On Thursday, with tensions rising in anticipation of the verdict and sentencing, the authorities said that threats had been made against Judge Syrova and that bodyguards had been assigned to her.

Mr. Putin, commenting on the case briefly while in London for the Olympics earlier this month, said he hoped that the women were not judged "too severely," but that there was nothing good about what they had done and that the decision was the court's to make.

As the trial opened, the women - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alyokhina, 24 - apologized, saying they had never intended to offend the Orthodox Church but rather sought to make a political statement against Mr. Putin and against the church patriarch, Kirill I, for supporting Mr. 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, including from Madonna, who paused a concert in Moscow to give a speech urging their release and later performed wearing a black bra with "Pussy Riot" stenciled in bold letters on her back.

In a closing statement, Ms. 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.

"Who is to blame for the performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and for our being put on trial after the concert? The authoritarian political system is to blame. What Pussy Riot does is oppositional art or politics."

She added, "In any event, it is a form of civil action in circumstances where basic human rights, civil and political freedoms are suppressed."