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Russian Anti-Putin Punk Band Sentenced to Two Years in Jail

August 17, 2012

Russian Court Sentences Pussy Riot Punks to 2 Years in Jail

A Russian court today sentenced three members of an all-female punk group to two years in prison for inciting religious hatred and hooliganism. Photographer: Andrey Smirnov/AFP via Getty Images

A Russian court jailed three female punk performers for two years for inciting religious hatred and hooliganism, prompting international condemnation of the case that’s become a symbol of President Vladimir Putin’s intolerance for dissent.

Prosecutors had sought three-year prison terms for the Pussy Riot band members, who performed a “punk prayer” in the country’s main Christian Orthodox place of worship in February urging Putin’s removal.

“They deliberately sought a public scandal and they wanted to insult not only the church workers, but society as a whole,” the judge, Marina Syrova, said today, rejecting defense arguments that the women staged a political act. “They deeply insulted Orthodox believers.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Ekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alekhina, 24, smiled and waved from inside a glass cage as the sentence was read out. The judge said she decided on a shorter jail term because two of the women were young mothers and none had a criminal record. “Shame,” a person in the courtroom shouted.

‘Disproportionate’ Outcome

The U.S. and the European Union criticized the trial’s outcome as “disproportionate,” while pop stars such as Madonna, Sting and Paul McCartney, who Putin invited to the Kremlin in 2003 before a Red Square concert, have backed the band members.

“Sentencing of the three young women, two of whom are mothers of young children, to two years in prison for a peaceful, if controversial, expression of their views is deeply troubling,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said in an e-mailed statement. “This case adds to the recent upsurge in politically motivated intimidation and prosecution of opposition activists.”

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was “concerned” about the effect the sentences would have on freedom and civil society in Russia. “The harsh verdict bears no relation” to the group’s protest, Westerwelle said in an e- mailed statement.

Opposition Movement

The case has galvanized a fractious political opposition as authorities ratchet up pressure by prosecuting leaders and other activists. Putin, who has cracked down after facing the biggest demonstrations against his 12-year rule last year, will find it hard to reverse course now, said Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technology in Moscow.

“Putin has become a hostage of the process of repression,” Bunin said by phone. “He’s in a trap. He can’t quit without losing face.”

Supporters of Pussy Riot plan to stage rallies today in more than 65 cities, including London, Paris, New York, San Francisco and Buenos Aires, according to a campaigners’ website. In Russia, public disquiet at the treatment of the activists has grown even if many disapprove of their protest in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

“It’s a mistake not to show them mercy,” the head of the Kremlin’s human-rights commission, Mikhail Fedotov, said by phone. “The sentence wasn’t justified and I don’t see any reason at all under the law to find them guilty.”

Courtroom Clash

Supporters and Orthodox opponents of Pussy Riot clashed in front of the courtroom before the hearing today, and a large crowd massed outside after the verdict, shouting “Putin is a disgrace for Russia.”

Former chess world champion Garry Kasparov, a leader of the solidarity movement, was among those detained outside the court, according to a statement on his website. More than 50 people were detained outside the court, the state news service RIA Novosti reported.

A poll published at the end of July by the independent Levada Center showed that while 47 percent of Russians consider Pussy Riot violated society’s moral values, 54 percent opposed jailing them. The three women have been held for more than five months since their arrest.

Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s approval ratings slumped this month to the lowest levels since mass protests erupted in December, when tens of thousands took to the streets to denounce Putin and alleged fraud in parliamentary elections. A crackdown on demonstrators has since ensued, including embezzlement charges that could see protest leader Alexey Navalny jailed for 10 years.

While there have been no major opposition demonstrations since an estimated 18,000 people gathered in central Moscow on June 12, the movement may be re-energized by the Pussy Riot trial and other concerns over the independence of the judiciary, according to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a Moscow-based political analyst.

‘New Signal’

“This can provide a new signal that will trigger a fresh wave of protests,” said Kryshtanovskaya, who’s also a member of the ruling United Russia party. “The opposition has united, organized itself and grown in numbers. They are fighting for power, for real changes. This is very dangerous.”

The case has split the pro-government camp. The organizer of a Kremlin-backed youth camp challenged Putin last month over the trial and a general lack of judicial independence as well as illegal detentions and propaganda on state television.

“The reason for many of the problems I’ve talked about is the impossibility to get a change of government” in Russia, Dmitry Ternovsky told Putin at the camp at Lake Seliger, northwest of Moscow, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin’s website.

‘Harsh’ Verdict

A top official in United Russia, Andrei Isayev, called the verdict “harsh” and expressed the hope that Putin could intervene, RIA Novosti reported.

The Orthodox Church is appealing to the authorities to show clemency toward the women, the Moscow Patriarchate said in an e- mailed statement after the verdict was issued.

“While not casting doubt on the legal justification of the court’s decision, we ask the authorities of the state to show mercy within the framework of the law, in the hope that they will they will refrain from repeating their blasphemous acts,” the church said in the statement.

Some opposition figures have criticized the band’s cathedral performance in a country where 69 percent of its 142 million people identify themselves as Orthodox, according to a 2011 Levada poll.

‘Drive Putin Away’

“Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, drive Putin away,” masked Pussy Riot members lip-synced in front of the altar of the cathedral in February, weeks before the presidential election. The group later posted the performance online, singing the words with music. Navalny, an Orthodox Christian, said on his blog in March that he didn’t approve of the “publicity” stunt in a sacred place, though the women shouldn’t be in jail.

One of the defendants, Tolokonnikova, was filmed having sex with her husband in a zoological museum in Moscow while pregnant a few days before Medvedev was elected president in 2008. The event, which involved other members of a radical art collective, was posted on the Internet.

As the judge spent three hours today reading out the verdict, the Pussy Riot defendants, one of whom was wearing a t- shirt with the words “No Pasaran!’ (They Won’t Pass!), openly joked at her speech.

‘‘The Putin system has made a PR catastrophe out of a situation that could have been easily contained with an administrative fine for a public order offense,” said John Lough, associate fellow of the Russian and Eurasia Program at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs.

“The result has been to sow divisions within the ruling elite about how to handle the case and at the same time to create new dividing lines in society,” Lough said on the research group’s website.

To contact the reporters on this story: Henry Meyer in Moscow at hmeyer4@bloomberg.net; Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow at skravchenko@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net


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