A Russian appeals court yesterday ordered the release of one member of anti-Russian President Vladimir Putin punk band Pussy Riot after giving her a suspended term, but ordered two others serve two years in a prison camp.
Maria Alekhina, 24, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, were contesting their conviction for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred over performing a song opposing Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral in February.
The judge at the Moscow court ordered the release of Samutsevich, 30, after giving her a two-year suspended prison term. However the two-year prison sentences of Alekhina and Tolokonnikova were upheld.
The release of Samutsevich was a major surprise. It came after she announced she was changing her lawyer at the first appeals hearing on Oct. 1. Her new lawyer argued she had been apprehended before taking part in the performance.
Judge Larisa Polyakova ruled “to leave Alekhina and Tolokonnikova’s sentences without changes,” while bowing to the appeal filed on behalf of Samutsevich, who was judged not to have actually been involved in the punk prayer.
“This is of course unexpected,” Yekaterina’s father Stanislav Samutsevich said after the ruling. “This is a great happiness. On the one hand, I am very glad. On the other hand, I am disappointed by the decision in relation to the other girls.”
In emotional scenes, the three women hugged, before Samutsevich was led out of the glass-paned courtroom cage to freedom.
Calls for their release have been made by world figures from Madonna to Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, while the women have been nominated for the EU parliament’s prestigious Sakharov prize for freedom of thought.
The women have been held in a Moscow prison since their arrest in March and will only be transferred to a prison camp — likely far from the Russian capital — after confirmation by the court.
Earlier, all three had defiantly maintained their innocence, telling the court their cathedral performance of Virgin Mary, Drive Putin Away was aimed at the Russian president and not religious believers.
“There is nothing anti-religious in the actions of Pussy Riot, it was political,” Tolokonnikova told the court in her remarks. “I am ready to apologize if I offended people, but repenting is impossible as that would be acknowledging that our action was anti-religious, which was not the case.”
“If the verdict remains unchanged, we will go to the prison camp and we will not stay silent, even if we are in Siberia,” Alekhina told the court.
Before the appeal process started, a call by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for the trio to be given a suspended sentence and released, as well as signs of mercy from the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, had given rise to some hope among Pussy Riot’s supporters.
However Putin’s latest comments in a television documentary last week gave little hint that he wanted to see any mercy.
In a special film made by state-owned NTV and aired on Putin’s 60th birthday on Sunday, the Russian leader laughed when the interviewer asked him about Pussy Riot, calling the band “talented” for making everyone repeat their “indecent” name.
Pressed to comment on the court’s initial decision in August to jail the three women, Putin said: “It was right to arrest them and it was right that the court took the decision that it did.”