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.
Members of the original defense team said they were puzzled by the turn of events. "We are dealing with a political game that could be about splitting Pussy Riot," defense lawyer Mark Feigin said.
The Russian Orthodox Church had said the appeals court should show leniency if the three women repented. But the defendants said Wednesday that they could not repent because they harbored no religious hatred and had committed no crime. Their protest, they said, was against Putin and the church hierarchy for openly supporting his rule.
Patriarch Kirill has expressed strong support for Putin, praising his leadership as "God's miracle." He described the punk performance as part of an assault by "enemy forces" on the church.
The judge repeatedly interrupted the defendants when their statements turned to politics, but they persisted in speaking their minds.
"We will not be silent. And even if we are in Mordovia or Siberia (where prisoners in Russia are often sent to serve out their terms) we won't be silent," Alekhina said.
A lawyer representing cathedral staff, Alexei Taratukhin, urged the court to uphold the verdict because the women's actions "had nothing to do with politics, democracy or freedom."
Five members of Pussy Riot entered the vast and nearly empty Christ the Savior Cathedral on Feb. 21. After Alekhina and her guitar were bundled out, only four of them were left to dance on the altar and shout out the words to their song before they too were ousted by security guards.
The band members were wearing their trademark balaclavas, which may have made it more difficult for police to identify them. The three women were arrested in March, and the group said the two others have since fled the country.
Pussy Riot later produced a video that added footage of a previous performance in a smaller church and dubbed in the soundtrack. This video, which became an Internet hit, was what most angered Russian Orthodox believers.
Tolokonnikova appealed to Russians for understanding:
"I don't consider myself guilty. But again I ask all those who are listening to me for the last time: I don't want people to be angry at me: Yes, I'm going to prison, but I don't want anyone to think that there is any hatred in me."
The court refused the defense lawyers' request to take into consideration that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina both have a young child.