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October 10, 2012

Moscow court frees 1 of 3 Pussy Riot members

MOSCOW — A Moscow appeals court on Wednesday unexpectedly freed one jailed member of punk band Pussy Riot, but upheld the two-year prison sentences for the two other women jailed for an irreverent protest against President Vladimir Putin.

All three women were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They argued in court on Wednesday that their impromptu performance inside Moscow's main cathedral in February was political in nature and not an attack on religion.

The case has been condemned in the U.S. and Europe, where it has been seen as an illustration of Putin's intensifying crackdown on dissent after his return to the presidency after four years as prime minister.

The Moscow City Court ruled that Yekaterina Samutsevich's sentence should be suspended because she was thrown out of the cathedral by guards before she could remove her guitar from its case and take part in the performance.

"The punishment for an incomplete crime is much lighter than for a completed one," said Samutsevich's lawyer, Irina Khrunova. "She did not participate in the actions the court found constituted hooliganism."

Dressed in neon-colored miniskirts and tights, with homemade balaclavas on their heads, the women performed a "punk prayer" asking Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin as he headed into a March election that would hand him a third term.

"If we unintentionally offended any believers with our actions, we express our apologies," said Samutsevich, who along with Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova spoke in court Wednesday from inside a glass cage known colloquially as the "aquarium."

"The idea of the protest was political, not religious," she said. "In this and in previous protests we acted against the current government of the president, and against the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution of the Russian government, against the political comments of the Russian patriarch. Exactly because of this I don't consider that I committed a crime."

Rights groups were frustrated by the appeals court decision.

"To see these two women sent to a Russian penal colony for the crime of singing a song undercuts any claim that Putin and the Russian government have to democracy and freedom of expression," Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Washington.

"It's a very cold climate for human rights in Russia right now," Nossel said.

Putin recently said the two-year sentences were justified because "It is impermissible to undermine our moral foundations, moral values, to try to destroy the country." Defense lawyers said his remarks amounted to pressure on the appeals court.

The appeal was postponed from Oct. 1 after Samutsevich fired her lawyers, a move prosecutors criticized at the time as a delaying tactic. Her father, Stanislav Samutsevich, attributed his daughter's release mostly to the change in lawyers. He said he was deeply sorry for Alekhina and Tolokonnikova, who are expected to be sent to a penal colony to serve out their sentences.

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