Russia’s human rights ombudsman on Thursday called the two-year prison sentences handed down to three female punk rockers “excessive” and warned that the case was igniting dangerous social tensions.

A Moscow court convicted the Pussy Riot band members last Friday of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after they belted out a profanity-laced song against President Vladimir Putin on the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral in February.

Vladimir Lukin, whom Putin nominated for the advisory role, said he might challenge the sentencing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich if their jail terms were upheld on appeal.

“It is a misdemeanor that in a normal, civilized European state, which Russia is, is handled in administrative rather than criminal proceedings. That’s why I think the ruling on those women is excessive,” the ombudsman said at a news conference when asked about the case.

The maximum sentence for the crime the women were convicted of was seven years in jail, but after Putin said that they had done “nothing good” but “should not be judged too harshly,” the state prosecutor asked for three-year sentences. The judge decided on two-year terms.

Western governments and singers have nevertheless condemned the sentences as disproportionate, and many Western media commentators have echoed the Russian opposition’s charge that the verdict was part of a crackdown on dissent by Putin.

However, the Kremlin has denounced foreign criticism as politically motivated. Many Russian Orthodox believers also have said that they were offended by the protest, part of a wave of demonstrations against Putin before his reelection to the presidency in March for a third term.

The women said they meant no offense and were protesting close ties between the state and the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, likened Putin’s years at the helm to a “miracle of God” a few weeks before the band’s protest.

Lukin, a former liberal lawmaker and ambassador to the United States, said the women’s stunt was not a crime but a “quite serious misdemeanor.”

He said that he hoped an appeals court would “more carefully consider all the aspects of this case” and that as ombudsman he had the right to challenge the verdict once it entered into force if he believed human rights had been violated.

“If the sentence remains the same . . . I will analyze this thoroughly,” he said.

Attorneys for the women have said that they expect to file an appeal next week.

Russian Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin speaks during a news conference in Moscow. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuers)

— Reuters