Saturday, February 17, 2018

Anti-Putin punk band gets 2-year prison sentence

MOSCOW — The face of dissent in Russia was once outcast intellectuals such as Nobel laureates Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

On Friday, the torch was passed to Pussy Riot, a three-woman punk band sentenced to two years in a Russian prison.

The band staged a guerrilla performance in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral in March, where they sang a "punk prayer" pleading with the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Vladimir Putin:

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away, put Putin away, put Putin away.

Wearing brightly colored balaclavas, they high-kicked and danced while singing in Russian:

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist, become a feminist, become a feminist.

The women's trial was seen around the world as an emblem of Russia's intolerance of dissent. Artists such as Paul McCartney, Madonna, Sting and Bjork have lambasted their treatment.

Two years in prison. The crime: "hooliganism driven by religious hatred."

As they were being sentenced, an apartment dweller across the street from the courtroom blared one of the group's songs loud enough to disturb the reading of the verdict. Police scrambled to cut the electricity to the building and silence the protest.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, stood in handcuffs in a glass cage in the courtroom for three hours as the judge read the verdict. They smiled sadly as the judge recounted testimony of prosecution witnesses.

Tolokonnikova laughed out loud when the judge read the testimony of a psychologist who said that her "active stance on social issues" was an anomaly.

The three women remained calm and kept smiling after the judge announced the sentence. Someone in the courtroom shouted "Shame!" They waved at relatives from behind the glass.

Outside, police clashed with supporters thronging the building, beating and arresting at least 60, independent Russian media reported, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Samutsevich's father said he met with his daughter before the court session and she was prepared for a prison sentence. "We tried to comfort her," said Stanislav Samutsevich.

The charges carried a maximum penalty of seven years in prison, although prosecutors had asked for a three-year sentence.

Putin had said the band members shouldn't be judged too harshly, creating expectations that they could be sentenced to time served and freed in the courtroom. This, however, would have left the impression that Putin had bowed to public pressure.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin couldn't intervene in the judicial process and refused to comment on the sentence.

Defense lawyers said they would appeal, although they had little hope the verdict would be overturned. "Under no circumstances will the girls ask for a pardon (from Putin)," said Mark Feygin. "They will not beg and humiliate themselves. . . ."

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets late last year and early this year to protest elections for parliament and president many considered fraudulent. Putin, who served two four-year terms as president, and then became prime minister, won a new six-year term in March.

Amnesty International condemned the Pussy Riot ruling. Governments including the United States, Britain, France and Germany denounced the sentence.

President Barack Obama was disappointed, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "While we understand the group's behavior was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way that these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system," he said.

Even some Kremlin loyalists strongly criticized the verdict. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said it has dealt "yet another blow to the court system and citizens' trust in it."

The head of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, has made no secret of his strong support for Putin, praising his presidencies as "God's miracle." He avoided talking to the media as he left Warsaw's Royal Castle after a ceremony in which he and the head of Poland's Catholic Church called for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Orthodox Church said in a statement after the verdict that the band's stunt was a "sacrilege" and a "reflection of rude animosity toward millions of people and their feelings." It also asked the authorities to "show clemency toward the convicted in the hope that they will refrain from new sacrilegious actions."

Some analysts viewed the crackdown on Pussy Riot as a reaction so heavy-handed as to provide a powerful spotlight for Russia's beleaguered opposition.

"A fiction writer from the Golden Age of Russian literature could never have dreamed up a scenario as absurd and a story as far-fetched as the persecution of the punk rock band Pussy Riot," two activists with the Human Rights Foundation wrote in an article for Forbes magazine's website.

"Those of us who attempt to keep human rights in the forefront of culture and of the public conversation can seldom find a greater gift than this perfect story," wrote Thor Halvorssen and Pedro Pizano. "In this instance, it reveals the tyrannical nature of Vladimir Putin's neo-czarist regime."

Information from the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

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