Russian punk group sentenced to 2 years for anti-Putin protest
The imprisonment and trial of the three punk rockers drew worldwide condemnation of constraints on political speech in Russia.
MOSCOW — The face of dissent in Russia was once that of the outcast intellectual such as Nobel laureates Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Then it was the oligarch who grew rich in the post-Soviet chaos and used his wealth to challenge the Kremlin.
The torch was passed again Friday.
A Moscow court convicted three punk rockers, members of the group Pussy Riot, of "premeditated hooliganism" and sentenced them to two years in prison.
The crime: a February "punk prayer" at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in which the balaclava-clad, miniskirted rockers beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin.
The imprisonment and trial of the women drew worldwide condemnation of constraints on political speech in Russia. Rallies in support of them were held in dozens of cities Friday, including Paris, New York and London, where demonstrators appeared outside the Russian Embassy wearing balaclavas, the band's trademark headgear.
Human-rights groups and Western governments, including the United States, criticized the verdict as unjust and the sentence as unduly severe. Because the women acted as a group, they had faced a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. Prosecutors had urged a three-year sentence.
The punishment was handed down by a Moscow judge, Marina Syrova, who described the women as posing a danger to society and said they had committed "grave crimes," including "the insult and humiliation of the Christian faith and inciting religious hatred."
As word of the sentences spread, protesters outside the courthouse howled angrily. Sporadic protests and violent arrests continued throughout the evening.
While the courtroom emptied, the three women — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22; Maria Alekhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30 — were left in their glass enclosure, and photographers were allowed to snap pictures. As she was led away, Tolokonnikova said: "We are happy because we brought the revolution closer!" A police officer snapped back, "Well done."
Lawyers for the women said they intend to appeal.
Russia has seen an upwelling of dissent since disputed parliamentary elections in December, including demonstrations that drew tens of thousands of people. But the rockers' case in recent weeks morphed into an international sensation, and focused attention on efforts of the recently reinstalled president, Putin, to clamp down on dissent.
This was partly because of the sympathetic appearance of the defendants — two are mothers of young children — and partly because their group uses music to carry its message. But it also set them in a David-and-Goliath struggle against a formidable power structure: the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
While the case has allowed critics of Putin to portray his government as squelching free speech and presiding over a rigged judicial system, it has also given the government a chance to portray political opponents as obscene, disrespectful rabble-rousers backed by the West.
The Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement Friday: "What happened is blasphemy and sacrilege, the conscious and deliberate insult to the sanctuary and a manifestation of hostility to millions of people."
The saga began in February when the women infiltrated the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and pranced around in front of the Holy Doors leading to the altar, dancing, chanting and lip-syncing for what would later become a music video of a profane song in which they asked the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
Security guards quickly stripped them of their guitars, but the video was completed with splices of footage from another church.
Because of the support from stars such as Madonna and Sting, the rockers have become more famous, at least outside Russia, than other political opposition leaders in Russia.
But while the rockers became minor celebrities, the band is far more political than musical: Its members have never commercially released a song or an album.
Reuters reported that in an opinion poll released Friday by the independent Levada research group, only 6 percent of Russians indicated sympathy with the women, 51 percent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility, and the rest were unable to say or were indifferent.
When their trial opened, the women apologized, saying they had never intended to offend the Orthodox church but rather sought to make a political statement against Putin and against the church patriarch, Kirill I, for supporting Putin's campaign for a third term as president.
Syrova, delivering her decision, said the political comments were spliced into the video later, and the action in the church was therefore motivated by religious hatred.
There were several heartbeats of silence in the courtroom after Syrova read her decision. Then, from somewhere in the gallery came shouts of "Shame!" and "Disgrace!"
The defendants smiled to each other and rolled their eyes.
Outside the courthouse, supporters of the group clashed with riot police. Dozens were arrested, including former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is active in the Russian political opposition. Kasparov fought with the police and appeared to be beaten as he was bundled into a police vehicle.
The Obama administration and the State Department each criticized the verdict. The State Department all but called on Russia's higher courts to overturn the conviction and "ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld."
Putin had said earlier he hoped the women would not be judged "too severely," but the decision was the court's to make. His spokesman said after the verdict that the president had made his views on the case clear.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.