Pussy Riot jail terms condemned as 'disproportionate'

(L-R) Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in court on 17 August The women said their protest was directed at the Orthodox Church leader's support for Mr Putin

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The US, EU and human rights groups have condemned jail sentences imposed on three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot over an anti-Vladimir Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral.

The women were sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism.

The US and EU said the sentences were disproportionate. Amnesty International said they must be overturned.

Russia's Orthodox Church said the protest was a "blasphemy" but also appealed for clemency for the women.

The sentences were handed down in Moscow by Judge Marina Syrova, who found Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

She said they had "crudely undermined social order".

The women said their protest, in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February, was directed at the Orthodox Church leader's support for Mr Putin, who two weeks later was elected for a third term as Russia's president.

'Excessively harsh'

US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US was "concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences... and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia".

Analysis

The Russian government has brought down a chorus of condemnation on itself, but the question is how much it really cares about that.

Firstly, many in Russia were genuinely outraged about the protest in the cathedral, and Vladimir Putin will be hoping to gain support from that conservative constituency.

Secondly, he seems to believe that the way to deal with dissent in Russia at the moment is to apply pressure on the new opposition rather than to engage with them.

Thirdly, international condemnation could actually help him appeal to those parts of Russian society who are still deeply distrustful of the West.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the US had "serious concerns about the way that these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system".

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the jail terms questioned Moscow's respect for the "obligations of fair, transparent and independent legal process".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the sentences were "excessively harsh", adding: "Today's verdict calls into question Russia's commitment to protect these fundamental rights and freedoms."

Amnesty International strongly condemned the court's ruling, saying it showed "that the Russian authorities will stop at no end to suppress dissent and stifle civil society".

BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall says that although some say Pussy Riot went too far, Mr Putin and his government cannot have wanted the negative publicity the trial has generated.

Street protests in Russia had largely subsided, our correspondent says, but now there is a new cause for the country's fractured opposition groups to unite around.

A series of small but vocal protests were held in support of the band members in a number of cities across the world - including in Belgrade, Kiev, Berlin, Sofia, London, Dublin and Barcelona.

Six protesters wearing trademark Pussy Riot face masks were arrested for public order offences in New York.

The sentencing of three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot

The Russian Orthodox Church itself, while maintaining the protest was a "blasphemy", called for clemency.

It said in a statement: "Without doubting the legitimacy of the court ruling, we ask the state authorities to show mercy for the convicted within the framework of the law in the hopes that they will refrain from repeating their sacrilegious acts."

Mr Putin has himself said the defendants should not be judged too harshly but, after sentencing, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president could not intervene in the judicial process.

Opinion polls in Russia have shown little support for Pussy Riot.

One recent poll of Russians released by the Levada research group showed only 6% sympathised, while 51% felt antipathy or had nothing good to say about them.

One band critic, Igor Kim, told the BBC News website from Moscow: "Shouting and screaming and spreading hate in Church is unacceptable and is contrary with Christian ethics."

'Like North Korea'

Along with other members of their band, the women had staged a flashmob-style performance of their song close to the altar in the cathedral on 21 February.

Ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov was among several people arrested

Their brief, obscenity-laced performance, which implored the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out", enraged the Orthodox Church.

Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich smiled as the widely predicted conviction was announced on Friday.

Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, said: "Russia's image was quite scary even before [this]. What happened now is a clear sign that Russia is moving towards becoming more like China or North Korea."

Samutsevich's father, Stanislav, said she was prepared for a prison sentence. "We tried to comfort her," he said.

The defendants will appeal but will not ask Mr Putin for a pardon, their lawyer said.

A number of Pussy Riot supporters, including ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov, were arrested outside the court.

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