One down, two to go: court frees Pussy Riot member

Punk activist has prison sentence suspended, but two bandmates told they must stay in prison

A Moscow court freed one of the convicted women from the punk group Pussy Riot yesterday, but upheld two-year jail terms for the other two.

There were cheers in court when the prison sentence of Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, was suspended.

Her lawyer had argued that she had not taken part fully in the "punk prayer" that the women performed in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Earlier the trio spoke defiantly at the appeal hearing, saying their protest song was political and not anti-church.In August they were jailed for staging an anti-Kremlin protest in Moscow's main cathedral, Christ the Saviour.

Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, were found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred".

The three appeal judges took just half an hour to come to their decision, and ruled that Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were guilty as charged and that their sentences should stand. The women were defiant in their speeches, which were made with awareness that it could be the last time for more than a year that they are able to speak in public.

"I want to warn you all that everything you are doing… will lead to a civil war in Russia," Tolokonnikova said. All three women apologised for any offence caused to religious believers by their actions but reiterated the same line of defence they had used during the trial, that the act was a political protest against Vladimir Putin and the close backing he is given by the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, and not motivated by any anti-religious feeling.

Samutsevich, while remaining defiant, took a somewhat different tack yesterday. The appeal hearing had been postponed while she changed lawyers and her new lawyer argued that she had not fully taken part in the performance and had been stopped before the "aggressive movements" which are said to have so offended Orthodox believers began. The panel of judges accepted her argument and commuted her sentence. However, they refused to consider the fact that both of the other two defendants have young children as mitigating circumstances and upheld the two-year sentences for both of them. They will now be sent to a prison colony, possibly in Siberia, to serve out their sentence.

The February stunt, when five women rushed the altar at Russia's biggest church and performed a brief, impromptu song calling on the Virgin Mary to "chase out Putin", has become an international cause célèbre. Amnesty International has labelled the women "prisoners of conscience" and a number of pop stars have come out in solidarity with the women. Madonna, playing a concert in Moscow, performed a song wearing a balaclava, the trademark outfit of the band, and had the words "Pussy Riot" stencilled on her torso.

Most Russians disapproved of the initial performance in the cathedral, but as the case dragged on and it became clear that the Orthodox Church and government were pressing for a custodial sentence for the trio, public opinion began to switch and the women have gained many supporters.

Even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke out in favour of releasing the women recently, saying that while he was "disgusted" by their performance, the time they had already spent behind bars was sufficient.

Mr Putin, however, said in a recent interview that the women "got what they asked for".

But the President also denied that he was involved in any way in the decision to prosecute the women.

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