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Russia jails Pussy Riot protest punks for two years

18 august 2012, 15:43
0
A Moscow court Friday handed a two-year jail sentence to three feminist punk rockers who infuriated the Kremlin and captured world attention by ridiculing President Vladimir Putin in Russia's main church, AFP reports.

The European Union immediately called the decision "disproportionate" while Washington urged Moscow to review the case and thousands rallied across world capitals calling on the Russian strongman to set the Pussy Riot members free.

Judge Marina Syrova said the three young protesters had displayed a "clear disrespect toward society" by staging a "Punk Prayer" performance just weeks ahead of Putin's historic but controversial March election to a third term.

"Considering the nature and degree of the danger posed by what was done, the defendants' correction is possible only through an actual punishment," she said to a few cries of "Shame!" and "This is not fair!" from the packed courtroom.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina -- 22 and 24 respectively and both mothers of young children -- and 30-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich exchanged glances and laughed nervously as they listened to the marathon verdict reading from inside a glass cage.

"I did not expect the verdict to be so harsh," Samutsevich's father Stanislav quietly told reporters after his daughter was led away.

But co-defence attorney Nikolai Polozov said the three "will not be asking (Putin) for a pardon" for what they consider a purely political act.

The trio had pulled on knitted masks and stripped down to short fluorescent dresses near the altar of Moscow's biggest cathedral on February 21 before belting out a raucous chorus calling on the Virgin Mary to "drive out Putin".

To many they represented prime examples of disenchanted youth whose support Putin could almost certainly have counted on at the start of his 12-year domination as both president and premier.

The state-appointed judge opened the hearing with dozens of passionate supporters of the band and the Russian Orthodox Church being held apart by riot police and Western diplomats jostling with reporters for a spot inside the courtroom.

Witnesses saw about 60 Pussy Riot fans -- ex-chess champion and fierce Putin critic Garry Kasparov among them -- being taken away into waiting vans by police during more than three hours of hearings.

The once-unheralded band members have already been held in pre-trial detention for five months despite international protests about their treatment by Putin's team.

The US State Department expressed immediate concern "about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences.

"We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the case "puts a serious question mark over Russia's respect for international obligations of fair, transparent and independent legal process."

And German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the sentence "excessively harsh (and) not in harmony with the values of European law."

The ruling was handed down as Pussy Riot release rallies hit major world cities and celebrities ranging from Paul McCartney and John Malkovich to Madonna and Bjork decried Putin's tough stance on dissent.

A spokesman for the Russian leader said Putin had no say in the court's decision and argued that the women always had the option to appeal.

"He has no right to impose his views on the court," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the PublicPost.ru website.

Putin had earlier this month said he thought the band members should not be judged "too severely" while stressing that he strongly disagreed with what they did.

The jailing capped an initial 100-day spell in office spell for Putin in which he has breached reforms put in place by his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev with new curbs on protests and political groups with foreign sources of income.

Yet the moves -- all stemming from Putin's charge that Washington was funding the historic protests against his return to the Kremlin last winter -- appear to be backfiring.

A poll published on the front page of the Vedomosti business daily on Friday showed Putin's approval rating slipping to a post-election low of 48 percent -- a notable slide from the 60 percent he enjoyed around his May inauguration.

There were some initial signs that the polling data and international pressure may force the authorities to adapt their approach.

Leading ruling party member Andrei Isayev called the sentence "harsh" and noted that Putin had yet to speak his full mind on the matter.

And a senior Church council issued a formal statement calling on the state "to show mercy for the convicted within the framework of the law."

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