Russian punk rocker freed on appeal; two others remain in prison

October 10, 2012

One of the members of a feminist punk group convicted of hooliganism, for storming into a cathedral and singing a protest song, unexpectedly won her freedom on appeal Wednesday.

The sentences of two other members of the band, called Pussy Riot, were upheld, and they face two years in a prison camp.

Their case has gained worldwide notoriety, with calls for their release from rock stars and political figures. Their target was President Vladimir Putin, who said last week that he thought their sentences were just. They continued to criticize him in court at Wednesday’s hearing.

The members of the band went to the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral on Feb. 21, wearing ski masks, and sang a song against Putin. At their trial last summer, they were accused of inciting religious hatred.

The case has been portrayed as evidence of a crackdown by Putin on more-spirited members of the opposition that began taking to the streets in open protest in December 2011. Other activists also face a variety of criminal charges that could carry severe penalties.

At the same time, parliament has passed bills that significantly increase the prison terms for organizing illegal protests and that have made it much more difficult for civil society organizations to operate here. New bills would greatly expand the definition of treason and make it easier to imprison people on charges of inciting religious hatred.

The released woman, Yekaterina Samutsevich, had replaced her attorneys before a previously scheduled hearing. Her supporters were quick to point out Wednesday that the lawyers who originally represented her — Violetta Volkova, Nikolai Polozov and Mark Feigin — are particularly disliked by Putin. Samutsevich’s father suggested that she was being rewarded for making the change; other allies saw an effort by the Kremlin to drive a wedge between members of the group and other activists as well.

Band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, both of whom have small children, kept the original defense team and now must serve their sentences.

The court decision releasing Samutsevich pointed out that she had not had time to join the others at the altar before security guards hustled them all out of the cathedral, and she therefore deserved less blame.

At Wednesday’s hearing, all three women argued that the protest was strictly political and not motivated by religious hatred.

“It is as clear as noon that our performance at the Christ the Savior Cathedral was political rather than anti-religious. I have no religious hatred, and none of us had it in our performance,” Tolokonnikova said. She said she felt repentance but not remorse.

“Repentance as a personal act is acceptable to us, but remorse is not, because this would mean that we acknowledge our guilt. It is impossible to feel remorse for something you did not do,” she said.She apologized for hurting believers’ feelings.

“If we unintentionally offended any believers with our actions, we express our apologies,” Samutsevich said.

The women were careful to mention the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church as one of their political targets, as opposed to those people who worship in the church.

The church is closely aligned with the Kremlin, and it pushed hard for the prosecution of the punk rockers. More broadly, it has been arguing that it is a victim of strident secular hostility. In the wake of the Pussy Riot convictions, some activists have been sawing down wooden crosses in cities throughout Russia.

Amnesty International said Wednesday that all three band members should be released. “The persecution of Pussy Riot has become a global symbol of President Putin’s shameless intolerance for criticism and determined crackdown on freedom of expression and association,” Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement released by her office.

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