Leading article: A verdict on Vladimir Putin

 

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In a chilling passage of the verdict read aloud in a Moscow court today, three members of punk group Pussy Riot were said to be "motivated by religious enmity and hatred". A reasonable response might be that those who have locked up these young singers for the crime of blasphemy in Vladimir Putin's Russia were motivated by religious bigotry and fear.

Far from being hooligans, as the prosecution alleged, the three feminists were unconventional campaigners whose anti-Putin songs in a Moscow Cathedral achieved a much vaster audience than originally anticipated.

The Kremlin's foolish over-reaction, which included keeping the band members in custody and away from their families for five months, led it to a lose-lose situation today. Hand down the full sentence of seven years and incur the wrath of international condemnation; let them go free and appear weak. The final sentence – two years' imprisonment – was a hopeless fudge. And it bodes ill for Russia's society, economy and hopes for political reform.

No open society can brutally suppress free expression in the name of preserving other people from offence. If such suppression becomes the norm, it will inevitably be mobilised at the convenience of those in power. So it is, by all accounts, in Moscow now. The scenes outside the courtroom today, which included the bundling into a police van of former chess champion Garry Kasparov, suggest the country's slide into autocracy is, if anything, accelerating.

Today's outcome is all the more dispiriting because, during the trial, there were some hopeful signs. Not only was international condemnation strong, but the defendants' speeches met with applause in the courtroom. Finally, surveys suggested widespread sympathy for the young singers among ordinary Russians. If the temper of the people favours leniency, it was hoped, perhaps the court might follow.

In the event, it did not. As with the improbable charges levelled at anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the final verdict looks disconcertingly like a response to pressure from the Kremlin. In the case of Pussy Riot, the Russian Orthodox Church was also out to punish those who dared to offend. Authoritarianism is bad enough; in Putin's Russia, theocracy is on the march too.

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