Pussy Riot trial gives Russia 'the image of a medieval dictatorship'
Even some of Putin's supporters are aghast at the penal term handed out to the feminist punks. Amid a global storm of protest, signs have emerged that they might be released early – but a deep national rift remains.
A storm of criticism broke in Russia following the harsh two-year prison sentences given to three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot for protesting against the government in a Moscow cathedral. Those openly critical of the jail terms included some who are close to Vladimir Putin and others with strong links to the church, increasing pressure on the authorities to treat the trio more leniently.
Three members of the punk collective – Maria Alyokhina, 24, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22 – were sentenced to serve two years in a penal colony on Friday after being found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". A Moscow judge rejected the defence's argument that the band's performance of an anti-Putin "punk prayer" was a form of political protest and ruled that it was motivated by hatred for Russian Orthodoxy.
Alexey Kudrin, a former finance minister who remains a close ally of Putin, said: "The verdict in the case against the Pussy Riot punk band isn't only a fact in the lives of three young women; it is also yet another blow to the justice system and, above all, Russian citizens' belief in it."
Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, another member of the country's minority liberal elite, also attacked the verdict, calling it a "strategic error that terribly damages the authority of the justice system". He voiced the widespread belief that the court case was politically orchestrated: "We don't know who took the final decision – the Kremlin? The patriarch? Probably not the court itself."
Opposition activists have accused Putin of orchestrating the campaign against Pussy Riot. The trio were arrested after a brief performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour of a song calling for the Virgin Mary to "chase Putin out". The band formed in response to Putin's decision to return to the presidency, and have gone from being a radical fringe group to becoming the figureheads of a protest movement numbering tens of thousands.
The case against Pussy Riot was widely seen as serving as a warning to other protesters, as well as a means of appealing to Putin's deeply conservative base. A poll released on Friday by the Levada Centre, an independent pollster, found that 44% of Russians believed the case against the band was conducted in a just manner. Most of those polled also believed the case was initiated by groups linked to the Russian Orthodox church.