MOSCOW - A judge sentenced three members of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot to two years jail on Friday for staging a protest against PresidentVladimir Putin in a church, an act the judge called "blasphemous".
Supporters of the women say their case has put Putin’s tolerance of dissent on trial. Several opposition figures were detained outside the courtroom while protesting in support of the women.
The women have support abroad, where their case has been taken up by a long list of celebrities including Madonna, Paul McCartney and Sting, but polls show few Russianssympathise with them.
Judge Marina Syrova found the women guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, describing them as blasphemers who had deliberately offended Russian Orthodox believers by storming the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral in February to belt out a song deriding Putin.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, stood watching in handcuffs in a glass courtroom cage.
The women say they were protesting against Putin’s close ties with the church when they burst onto the altar in Moscow’s golden domed Christ the Saviour Cathedralwearing bright ski masks, tights and short skirts. State prosecutors had requested a three-year jail term.
“Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina committed an act of hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious disrespect for society,” the judge said.
“The girls’ actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church’s rules.”
Though few Russians have much sympathy for the women, Putin’s opponents portray the trial as part of a wider crackdown by the former KGB spy to crush their protest movement.
Foreign stars have campaigned for the trio’s release, and Washington says the case is politically motivated. Madonna performed in Moscow with “PUSSY RIOT” painted on her back.
“As in most politically motivated cases, this court is not in line with the law, common sense or mercy,” veteran human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva said.
But Valentina Ivanova, 60, a retired doctor, said outside the courtroom before the verdict was delivered: “What they did showed disrespect towards everything, and towards believers first of all.”
“Let them get three years in jail; they need to wise up.”
The trial has divided Russia’s mainly Orthodox Christian society, with many backing the authorities’ demands for severe punishment, but others saying the women deserved clemency.
Putin, who returned to the presidency for a third term in May after a four-year spell as prime minister, has said the women did “nothing good” but should not be judged too harshly.
Witnesses saw at least 24 people detained by police in scuffles or for unfurling banners or donning balaclavas in support of Pussy Riot outside the courtroom. Among those detained were Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist opposition leader, and Garry Kasparov, the chess great and vehement Putin critic.
“Shame on (Russian Orthodox Patriarch) Kirill, shame on Putin,” Udaltsov said before he was detained.
“A disgraceful political reprisal is underway on the part of the authorities. … If we swallow this injustice they can come for any one of us tomorrow.”
The crowd of about 2,000 people outside the court was dominated by Pussy Riot supporters but also included some nationalists and religious believers demanding a tough sentence.
“Evil must be punished,” said Maria Butilno, 60, who held an icon and said Pussy Riot had insulted the faithful.
An opinion poll of Russians released by the independent Levada research group on Friday showed only 6 percent had sympathy with the women, 51 percent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility, and the rest were unable to say or were indifferent.
“The girls went too far, but they should be fined and released,” said Alexei, a 30-year-old engineer on a Moscow street near the court. He declined to give his family name.
Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich are educated, middle-class Russians who say their protest was intended to highlight close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin, not to offend believers.
The charges against Pussy Riot raised concern abroad about freedom of speech inRussia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Protests in support of the group were planned on Friday in cities from Sydney to Paris, and New York to London. A crowd of several hundred gathered in a New York hotel late on Thursday to hear actress Chloe Sevigny and others read from letters, lyrics and court statements by the detained women.
In Kiev, a bare-chested feminist activist took a chainsaw to a wooden cross bearing a the figure of Christ in the centre of the city. In Bulgaria, sympathisers put Pussy Riot-style masks on statues at a Soviet Army monument.
Protest leaders say Putin will not relax pressure on opponents in his new six-year term. In moves seen by the opposition as a crackdown, parliament has rushed through laws increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls on the Internet, which is used to arrange protests, and imposing stricter rules on defamation.