Tough sentences redraw battle lines of Russian politics

The protests suggest Putin has not silenced his critics, writes Shaun Walker in Moscow


Fistfights, arrests and an impromptu punk performance on a balcony outside court – in many ways, yesterday's events were a fitting dénouement to the dark and surreal process that has been the trial of the Pussy Riot trio.

The three women on trial were all given two-year jail sentences, in a sign of a new crackdown on dissent since Vladimir Putin regained the presidency in May.

Judge Marina Syrova found that the women were guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred", and said during the three-hour reading of her verdict that the trio had caused distress to a "significant proportion" of Russian society. She rejected the defence claim that their performance had been making a political point about the Church's support for Mr Putin and was not driven by religious hatred.

The three women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, took part in a stunt in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February, wearing balaclavas and brightly coloured tights, in a performance that was later dubbed over with the lyrics "Virgin Mary, chase out Putin".

They were arrested two weeks later and have been in pre-trial detention ever since. Guilty only of a non-violent, 40-second mime, the trio spent the entire day in metal handcuffs inside the glass defendants' cage, known as the "aquarium", and pending appeals will now be dispatched to a prison colony.

The three defendants watched impassively as the judge surmised the case, occasionally breaking into wry smiles of disbelief, and moving their weight from one leg to the other in tiredness as the verdict reached its third hour.

"Innocent people have been imprisoned," defence lawyer Mark Feygin said after the trial. "This is happening in Russia, in the 21st century. This is a disgrace for justice." Ms Samutsevich's father, Stanislav Samutsevich, said the verdict showed that "Russia is going down the path of Saudi Arabia or Iran, where people are stoned for religious crimes".

The case has drawn international condemnation, with a whole host of musicians voicing their support for the three women. The Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock told The Independent the case was comparable to the opposition his band faced in the early days of the UK punk movement.

"It's bad. I suppose it's similar in a way to what happened with our 'God Save The Queen' single in '77," he said. "But though there was a bit of violence against the band we didn't do two years. That Putin's a twat, isn't he?"

Madonna, playing a concert in Moscow earlier this month, performed one song wearing balaclava and with "Pussy Riot" daubed on her back in black letters, while Sir Paul McCartney also weighed in this week, calling for the women to be freed.

The reaction within Russia has been more muted, with some pop stars calling for harsh punishment for the trio, and the majority remaining silent. As the judge read her verdict yesterday, Russia's only 24-hour news channel went live to a regional government meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev.

However, as the full severity of the government response became apparent, the trio have been gaining more sympathy, even among those who found their performance distasteful. "I can't believe that in the 21st century a judge in a secular court is talking about devilish movements," said Boris Akunin, one of Russia's most famous writers, who came to court to show solidarity yesterday. Hundreds of ordinary Russians also gathered close to the courthouse. Several dozen people were arrested for shouting slogans or wearing balaclavas. Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion turned opposition politician, was particularly roughly treated as he was bundled into a waiting police car.

"The riot police took me away in the style of bandits. They simply grabbed my arms and legs," Mr Kasparov said later in the afternoon. Police sources claimed that one officer had to seek medical attention for a bite wound. Mr Kasparov said the idea that he had bitten someone was "utter nonsense".

The opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was inside the courtroom, said the spectacle had been "disgusting" to watch.

"This verdict was written by Vladimir Putin," said Mr Navalny, who has emerged as one of the leaders of the street protests against Mr Putin's rule that have grown in recent months. He called on Russians to come out to newly planned protests in response to the sentence, and to show solidarity "with Pussy Riot and the other political prisoners in Russia".

Amnesty International called the verdict a "bitter blow for freedom of expression", while the US Embassy in Moscow said the sentence was "disproportionate".

On the eve of the verdict, Ms Tolokonnikova's lawyer released a handwritten letter from his client, in which she said she remained defiant. "Our being in jail is a clear sign that freedom is being taken away from the whole country," she wrote. "We are creating a big and important political event, and the Putin system is finding it harder and harder to cope with it."

The lawyers for the defence say they will appeal, though they have little hope that any Russian court will overturn what they say is a politically motivated verdict.

Suggested Topics
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionPart of 'best-selling' Demeter scent range
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science Teacher Urgently required for October start

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

ICT Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Group: We are looking for an outstandi...

Art & Design Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Group: We are looking for an outstandi...

Assistant Management Accountant -S/West London - £30k - £35k

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: We are working with an exciting orga...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering