MOSCOW — A Russian court postponed an appeal Monday by three members of the jailed rock band Pussy Riot after one of them fired her lawyers. Prosecutors criticized the move as a delaying tactic, while one defense lawyer said the women were under tremendous pressure, with the government threatening to take away their children.
The two year-sentences given the three performers for hooliganism after they performed a "punk prayer" against President Vladimir Putin at Moscow's main cathedral have provoked an international outcry that has embarrassed Putin's government.
The band members' imprisonment has come to symbolize intolerance of dissent in Putin's Russia and the increasingly close links between the government and the Orthodox church, which have angered many Russians.
As the hearing began Monday, band member Yekaterina Samutsevich unexpectedly announced that she has fired her three lawyers over an unspecified disagreement.
Samutsevich said she had found another lawyer but had not yet signed a contract. Her fellow band members said they supported Samutsevich's choice but would still retain the services of their lawyers.
Violetta Volkova, the defense lawyer representing Samutsevich personally, said she did not know the reason for the decision but respected her client's right to choose.
The appeal was adjourned until Oct. 10.
Prosecutors and court officials cried foul.
"As a rule, such actions being taken on the day of the hearing are directed solely at creating a delay," court spokeswoman Anna Usacheva said.
Olga Mefodyeva, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, suggested the decision might have been a public relations ploy.
"It is possible that because attention to the case has weakened somewhat, they are using such events to draw that attention once again and make this issue into a subject of active discussion," Mefodyeva said.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and the 30-year-old Samutsevich were arrested in March after dancing and high-kicking at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral as they pleaded with the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin.
They said during their trial in August that they were protesting the Russian Orthodox Church's support for Putin and didn't intend to offend religious believers.
The women have all been resolutely defiant during their initial court hearings, but the apparent differences over their legal strategy have led to speculation about possible fissures.
Defense lawyer Nikolai Polozov said the group had come under threats and psychological pressure from authorities.
"They threatened to take away their children," Polozov said after Monday's hearing. "They try to find weak spots from any angle. Essentially, their position is to push them apart."
Other members of the group's support team denied that Samutsevich, who smiled and chatted with her fellow defendants in court, had been pressured. Tolokonnikova and Alekhina have young children, Samutsevich does not.
Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, downplayed the legal move Monday, saying Samutsevich's decision was simply caused by a change of mood.
Both the government and the church appear to want an end to the highly charged case.
The Russian Orthodox Church said Sunday the rockers would deserve mercy if they repent for their February stunt. Earlier, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had said that keeping them in prison any longer would be "unproductive."
Even some government loyalists have criticized the harsh sentence, voicing concern about the church's interference in secular affairs and a growing repressive streak in the Kremlin's policies.
The international support for the group, however, has also fostered irritation, being perceived among many Russians as foreign meddling in their justice system.
Dozens of supporters gathered outside the court building Monday in solidarity with the band, singing their songs. Five were later arrested for resisting police attempts to disperse them, according to RosUznik, a legal advocacy group.
But the Pussy Riot supporters were frequently drowned out by a larger group of mostly elderly Orthodox Christian activists, who carried icons, sang hymns, prayed and meandered in a procession around the courthouse.
Other anti-Pussy Riot demonstrators carried inflatable female dolls in balaclavas to the court building to protest international groups bestowing awards on the band.