Dawn News

MOSCOW: A Moscow court on Friday handed a two-year jail sentence to three feminist punk rockers who infuriated the Kremlin and captured world attention by ridiculing President Vladimir Putin in Russia's main church.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton immediately called the decision “disproportionate” while hundreds of people rallied in other countries calling on the Russian strongman to set the young Pussy Riot members free.

Judge Marina Syrova said the three protesters had displayed a “clear disrespect toward society” by staging a “Punk Prayer” performance just weeks ahead of Putin's historic but controversial March election to a third term.

“Considering the nature and degree of the danger posed by what was done, the defendants' correction is possible only through an actual punishment,” she said to a few cries of “Shame!” and “This is not fair!” from the packed courtroom.Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina — 22 and 24 respectively and both mothers of young children — and 30-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich had exchanged glances and laughed nervously as they listened to the marathon verdict reading from inside a glass cage.

“They will not be asking (Putin) for a pardon,” their attorney Nikolai Polozov said only moments after the verdict was read.

The trio had pulled on knitted masks and stripped down to short fluorescent dresses near the altar of Moscow's biggest cathedral on Feb 21 before belting out a raucous chorus calling on the Virgin Mary to “drive out Putin”.

To many they represented prime examples of the promise-filled but ever more disenchanted youth whose support Putin could almost certainly have counted on at the start of his 12-year domination as both president and premier.

The state-appointed judge opened the hearing with dozens of passionate supporters of the band and the Russian Orthodox Church being held apart by riot police and Western diplomats jostling with reporters for a spot inside the courtroom.

Witnesses saw about 30 Pussy Riot fans — the radical leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov among them — being taken away into waiting vans by police.

“Let Pussy Riot and all their supporters burn in hell,” one church supporter screamed amid the tumult.

The once-unheralded band members have already been held in pre-trial detention for five months despite international protests about their treatment by Putin's team.

“If someone is placed in pre-trial detention in Russia, that means they are getting convicted,” veteran human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyva told the private Dozhd TV channel.

“It looks like they will have to take this to Europe,” she said in reference to the European Court of Human Rights.

The three have asked the faithful to forgive them for causing offence but vigorously defended their view that Russia had made little progress in the 12 years of Putin's domination from the worst of its totalitarian days.

“I do not believe in this court. There is no court. It is an illusion,” Tolokonnikova said in reference to Russian judges' propensity to toe the Kremlin line in big cases.

Ashton said the case “puts a serious question mark over Russia's respect for international obligations of fair, transparent and independent legal process.”

The sentence was handed down as Pussy Riot release rallies were staged across Europe, bolstered by a campaign backed by celebrities such as Paul McCartney, Bjork and Madonna directed against Putin's crackdown on dissent.

The verdict was delivered in the same week that Putin marks the first 100 days of a third Kremlin term he has already used to slap new restrictions on protests and political organisations with foreign sources of income.

Yet the moves — all stemming from Putin's charge that Washington was funding the historic protests against his return to the Kremlin last winter — appear to be backfiring.

A poll published on the front page of the Vedomosti business daily on Friday showed Putin's approval rating slipping to a post-election low of 48 per cent — a notable slide from the 60 per cent he enjoyed around his May inauguration.

The former KGB agent's return to a Kremlin post he used to centralise power in 2000-2008 has been repeatedly punctuated by tense diplomatic exchanges with western governments fearful about the future of free expression in Russia.

The US State Department has already angered Moscow by voicing formal concern about the “politically motivated prosecution of the Russian opposition”.—AFP


Email feedback and queries to Dawn.com's editorial team, or visit our contact page

GET THE LATEST NEWS STRAIGHT TO YOUR INBOX


Comments (0) Closed