Tough sentences redraw battle lines of Russian politics

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

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The Independent Online

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.

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