By Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW - A member of punk band Pussy Riot was freed on appeal on Wednesday (10/10/2012) but a Moscow court upheld prison sentences for two others imposed over a raucous cathedral protest against Vladimir Putin, who said they had got the jail terms they deserved.
Moscow City Court confirmed the two-year prison sentences handed down to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina but suspended the sentence on Yekaterina Samutsevich.
Her lawyer told the court that Samutsevich had not performed the 'punk protest' near the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February because she had been stopped and led away before it took place.
In emotional statements from a courtroom cage during the appeal hearing, women from the band had earlier said they had not meant to offend the faithful with their actions but criticised the courts and the Kremlin chief.
"Putin is doing everything for the development of civil war in this country,” said Tolokonnikova, raising her voice to try to drown out a judge who tried to interrupt her as she began to talk about Putin.
Tolokonnikova, 22, Alyokhina, 24, and Samutsevich, 30, were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for a "punk prayer” imploring the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin, and sentenced to two years in jail.
The case sparked an international outcry, with Western governments and pop star Madonna condemning the sentences as disproportionate, a view not widely shared in Russia where public opinion was shocked by the protest.
In an interview aired on Sunday, Putin defended the sentences: "It is right that they were arrested and it was right that the court took this decision because you cannot undermine the fundamental morals and values to destroy the country".
At the appeal hearing, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina told the court their protest was purely political.
"We did not want to offend believers,” Alyokhina, 24, told the court. "We came to the cathedral to speak out against the merger between spiritual figures and the political elite of our country.”
Alyokhina said she did not expect the appeal would succeed, however. "I have lost all hope in our courts,” she said.
Defence lawyer Mark Feigin asked the court to reverse the verdict and censure Putin.
"No official ... is permitted to interfere with the court,” he said angrily.
Relatives and lawyers for the trio complained of political interference in the original trial and said that Putin’s weekend comments on the case in the interview marking his 60th birthday had compromised the appeal.
"After Putin’s comments, I don’t think lawyers can do anything anyway,” Samutsevich’s father, Stanislav, told Reuters on Tuesday.
The women contend their protest in the cathedral in central Moscow was an acerbic comment on the close ties between the Kremlin and Russia’s dominant church, which considers about two-thirds of the population as its flock.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill had given Putin, then prime minister, unofficial but clear support in his successful campaign for a third presidential term, likening Putin’s years in power to a "miracle of God".
Kremlin opponents said the jail terms were part of a clampdown on dissent that has produced restrictive laws and criminal cases against critics of Putin since he began his six-year term in May.
"We are in jail for our political convictions,” Alyokhina said. "Even if our sentences are upheld, we will not be silent. Even if we are in Mordovia or Siberia, we will not be silent, no matter how uncomfortable it is for you.”
Tolokonnikova also told the court the group was not motivated by religious hatred.
"It’s painful for me to hear that I am speaking out against religion. I have no religious hatred and never have,” she said.
Sympathy for Pussy Riot is limited in Russia, where Patriarch Kirill has cast the protest as part of a concerted attack meant to undermine traditional Russian values and curb the church’s post-Soviet revival.
Parliament is considering legislation stiffening punishment for offending religious feelings and Putin has warned that such offences - against Christians, Muslims or other believers in diverse Russia - could incite violence.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said last month that they have already served enough time, while the Russian Orthodox Church has said they should repent if they want forgiveness - a request they made clear they found inappropriate.
An opinion poll conducted on Sept. 21-24 by the independent Levada centre found 35 percent of Russians believe the two-year sentences were appropriate, while 34 percent said they were too lenient and only 14 percent said they were excessive.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Alissa de Carbonnel; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Boyle) - Reuters