MOSCOW (Reuters) – Three members of a feminist punk band were found guilty on Friday of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for staging an anti-Kremlin protest in a church, in a case that supporters say put President Vladimir Putin’s tolerance of dissent on trial.
State prosecutors want the women from the Pussy Riot group jailed for three years over the protest in February in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, but the judge did not immediately issue a sentence as she read out the long verdict.
The three young women, in handcuffs, stood in silence in a glass courtroom cage and at times smiled and laughed to each other as the judge, Marina Syrova, read out the verdict.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, stormed the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February wearing bright ski masks, tights and short skirts and sang a “punk prayer” urging the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
“Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina committed an act of hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious disrespect for society,” the judge said.
She said their brief protest was based on “motives of religious hatred and enmity”.
Though few Russians have much sympathy for the women, Putin’s opponents portray the trial as part of a wider crackdown by the former KGB spy to crush their protest movement. Foreign stars led by Madonna – who performed in Moscow with “PUSSY RIOT” painted on her back – have campaigned for the trio’s release, and Washington says the case is politically motivated.
“Our imprisonment is a clear and distinct sign that the whole country’s freedom is being taken away,” Tolokonnikova, 22, said in a letter written in jail and posted on the Internet before the verdict on Friday by defense lawyer Mark Feigin.
Police blocked off the street outside the brick courthouse in Moscow with metal barriers, and police buses stood by as a large crowd gathered. Four people were detained when they unfurled a banner reading: “Free Pussy Riot”.
The trial has divided Russia’s mainly Orthodox Christian society, with many backing the authorities’ demands for severe punishment over a protest the prosecution has described as sacrilege, but others asking for clemency for the women.
Putin, who returned to the presidency for a third term in May and a four-year spell as prime minister, has said the women did “nothing good” but should not be judged too harshly.
“The girls went too far, but they should be fined and released,” said Alexei, a 30-year-old engineer on a Moscow street near the court. He declined to give his family name.
But Valentina Ivanova, 60, a retired doctor, could not hide her outrage, saying: “What they did showed disrespect towards everything, and towards believers first of all.
“Let them get three years in jail; they need to wise up.”
An opinion poll of Russians released by the independent Levada research group on Friday showed only 6 percent had sympathy with the women, 51 percent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility, and the rest were unable to say or were indifferent.
Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich are educated, middle-class Russians who say their protest was intended to highlight close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin, not to offend believers.
The charges against Pussy Riot raised concern abroad about freedom of speech in Russia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Protests in support of the group were planned on Friday in cities from Sydney to Paris, and New York to London, and a long list of international celebrities have backed their cause.
(Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Alissa de Carbonnel, Maria Tsvetkova and Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Olzhas Auyezov in Kiev Editing by Alastair Macdonald)