POSTED: 4:47 a.m. HST, Aug 17, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 5:29 a.m. HST, Aug 17, 2012
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!"
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.
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.