MOSCOW – A Moscow judge sentenced three members of the provocative punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison on hooliganism charges on Friday after a trial seen around the world as an emblem of Russia’s intolerance of dissent.
The trial inspired a wave of small but raucous protests across Europe and North America in support of the feminist rockers, who have been dubbed prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Hundreds of Pussy Riot supporters waiting outside the Moscow courtroom chanted “down with the police state” when the sentence was announced. Dozens were detained, including several opposition leaders.
The three women were arrested in March after a guerrilla performance in Moscow’s main cathedral where they high-kicked and danced while singing a “punk prayer” pleading with the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Vladimir Putin, who was elected to a third term as Russia’s president two weeks later.
Judge Marina Syrova said in her verdict that the band members “committed hooliganism driven by religious hatred.” She rejected the women’s arguments that they were protesting the Orthodox Church’s support for Putin and didn’t intend to offend religious believers.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, stood in handcuffs in a glass cage in the courtroom for three hours as the judge read the verdict.
They smiled sadly as the judge recounted testimony of prosecution witnesses accusing them of sacrilege and “devilish dances” in church and said that their feminist views made them hate the Orthodox religion.
Tolokonnikova laughed out loud when the judge read the testimony of a psychologist who said that her “active stance on social issues” was an anomaly.
The three women remained calm and kept smiling after the judge announced the sentence. Someone in the courtroom shouted “Shame!” They waved at relatives from behind the glass.
Samutsevich’s father said he met with his daughter before the court session and she was prepared for a prison sentence. “We tried to comfort her,” Stanislav Samutsevich said.
The charges carried a 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, creating expectations that they could be sentenced to time served and freed in the courtroom. This, however, would have left the impression that Putin had bowed to public pressure, something he has resisted throughout his 12 years in power.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin couldn’t intervene in the judicial process and declined to comment on the sentence.
“Putin has doomed himself to another year and a half of international shame and humiliation,” said Boris Akunin, one of Russia’s most popular authors, who was among the Pussy Riot supporters outside the courthouse. “The whole thing is bad because it’s yet another step toward the escalation of tensions within society. And the government is absolutely to blame.”
Defense lawyers said they would appeal the verdict, although they had little hope that it would be overturned. “Under no circumstances will the girls ask for a pardon (from Putin),” Mark Feygin said. “They will not beg and humiliate themselves before such a bastard.”
Outside the court, 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, saying it “shows that the Russian authorities will stop at no end to suppress dissent and stifle civil society.” Governments including the United States, Britain, France and Germany denounced the sentences as disproportionate.