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Relatives fear for female punk band appeal after Putin comments

Moscow (Reuters) - Pussy Riot supporters said the punk band members were unlikely to win their appeal against jail terms for a raucous Moscow cathedral protest against Vladimir Putin, after the Russian president said they had got what they deserved.
/ Source: Reuters

Moscow (Reuters) - Pussy Riot supporters said the punk band members were unlikely to win their appeal against jail terms for a raucous Moscow cathedral protest against Vladimir Putin, after the Russian president said they had got what they deserved.

The three women were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for belting out a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral imploring the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin, and jailed for two years.

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.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, say their performance was a political protest and that they have no animus toward Russian Orthodox faithful.

However, 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 an 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 three women were brought to Moscow City Court and led into a metal and plexiglass cage where they sat facing a three-judge panel and stood to answer introductory questions from the senior judge.

Their protest was an acerbic comment on the close ties between the Kremlin and Russia's dominant church, whose leader Patriarch Kirill had given Putin, then prime minister, unofficial but clear support in his successful campaign for a third presidential term.

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.

TOUGHER LAWS

But sympathy for Pussy Riot is limited in Russia, where Patriarch Kirill has cast the protest as part of an attack meant to curb the church's post-Soviet revival in a nation where most people are Russian Orthodox.

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.

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".

An opinion poll conducted on September 21-24 by the independent Levada center 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.

The appeal hearing in the Moscow City Court began on October 1 but was quickly adjourned after Samutsevich dismissed her lawyers, citing unspecified differences of opinion on the case.

Samutsevich's father said there was no disagreement among the women about how to approach the appeal.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Boyle; )