One member of the controversial performance art collective Pussy Riot will be freed on parole but the other two are Siberia-bound, after a Moscow appeals court upheld their sentence of two years in a penal colony Wednesday.
Supporters and opponents of the group demonstrated outside the courthouse as lawyers inside revisited the case of the profane Feb. 21 "punk prayer" inside Moscow's premier Orthodox cathedral.
The three women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, continued to insist they are innocent of "religious hatred," the charge on which they were convicted in August, and repeated that the 40-second performance in the church was a political protest against the Orthodox Patriarch's public support for candidate Vladimir Putin in the presidential elections.
The appeal judges rejected those arguments, but handed Ms. Samutsevich a suspended sentence after accepting a plea by her new lawyers that she should be treated differently because she did not actually take part in the performance. It was not explained why the fact that Samutsevich was detained by church security before she could take out her guitar and join the other women – which has been known from the outset – wasn't taken into account in the original trial.
Supporters of Pussy Riot argue that the entire affair has been a show trial aimed at intimidating dissenters and that the slight correction made by the appeals court is just more political theater.
"The authorities are trying to adjust their image, to look maybe not so tough before the international community," says Sergei Davidis, a lawyer and member of the Solidarnost opposition movement.
"But the political task hasn't changed, and nothing here alters the outcome. The goal of the hard sentence was to frighten activists, reassure Orthodox believers, and reaffirm the alliance between church and state," he adds. "All that remains the same."
Many public figures, including Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, have questioned the wisdom of imprisoning the women, and last weekend the church issued a statement saying they should be granted clemency if they "repent."
Addressing the court Wednesday, Ms. Alyokhina said the group has apologized to religious believers repeatedly, and had no intention of offending worshipers in the nearly empty church. "[But] for us to repent, that's unacceptable. It's a kind of blackmail," she said, insisting that repentance is a private matter and not something for public show.
"We're all innocent ... the verdict should be overturned. The Russian justice system has been discredited," she added.
In a TV documentary timed for his 60th birthday Sunday, President Putin spoke about the Pussy Riot case, repeating that he played no role in it but thinks the women got what they deserved.
"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," Putin said.
"My first reaction was that they should ask believers for forgiveness and that would have been that.... But they kept building it up, and so the whole case ended in the court slapping them with two-year jail terms, so there you have it. I have nothing to do with this. They wanted it and they got it," he added.
But defense lawyer Mark Feigin told the court that Putin's repeated public statements on the case represented "direct pressure from the organs of power and the press which is controlled by it ... [therefore it is a] violation of constitutional and criminal procedure law."