- Associated Press - Friday, August 17, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) - A Moscow judge sentenced three members of the provocative punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison on hooliganism charges on Friday following a trial seen around the world as an emblem of Russia’s intolerance of dissent.

The trial inspired a wave of small but raucous protests across Europe and North America in support of the feminist rockers, who have been dubbed prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Hundreds of Pussy Riot supporters waiting outside the Moscow courtroom chanted “down with the police state” when the sentence was announced. Dozens were detained, including several opposition leaders.

The three women were arrested in March after a guerrilla performance in Moscow’s main cathedral where they high-kicked and danced while singing a “punk prayer” pleading with the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Vladimir Putin, who was elected to a third term as Russia’s president two weeks later.

Judge Marina Syrova said in her verdict that the band members “committed hooliganism driven by religious hatred.” She rejected the women’s arguments that they were protesting the Orthodox Church’s support for Putin and didn’t intend to offend religious believers.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, stood in handcuffs in a glass cage in the courtroom for three hours as the judge read the verdict. They smiled sadly as the judge recounted testimony of prosecution witnesses accusing them of sacrilege and “devilish dances” in church and said that their feminist views made them hate the Orthodox religion.

Tolokonnikova laughed out loud when the judge read the testimony of a psychologist who said that her “active stance on social issues” was an anomaly.

The three women remained calm and kept smiling after the judge announced the sentence. Someone in the courtroom shouted “Shame!” They waved at relatives from behind the glass.

Samutsevich’s father said he met with his daughter before the court session and she was prepared for a prison sentence. “We tried to comfort her,” said Stanislav Samutsevich.

The charges carried a maximum penalty of seven years in prison, although prosecutors had asked for a three-year sentence.

Putin himself had said the band members shouldn’t be judged too harshly, creating expectations that they could be sentenced to time served and freed in the courtroom. This, however, would have left the impression that Putin had bowed to public pressure, something he has resisted throughout his 12 years in power.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin couldn’t intervene in the judicial process and refused to comment on the sentence.

Putin has doomed himself to another year and a half of international shame and humiliation,” said Boris Akunin, one of Russia’s most popular authors, who was among the Pussy Riot supporters outside the courthouse. “The whole thing is bad because it’s yet another step toward the escalation of tensions within society. And the government is absolutely to blame.”

Defense lawyers said they would appeal the verdict, although they had little hope that it would be overturned. “Under no circumstances will the girls ask for a pardon (from Putin),” said Mark Feygin. “They will not beg and humiliate themselves before such a bastard.”

Outside the court, police rounded up a few dozen protesters, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is a leading opposition activist, and leftist opposition group leader Sergei Udaltsov.

When a prison bus drove the three women away, hundreds of supporters cheered their support.

Amnesty International strongly condemned the court’s ruling, saying it “shows that the Russian authorities will stop at no end to suppress dissent and stifle civil society.” Governments including the United States, Britain, France and Germany denounced the sentences as disproportionate.

President Barack Obama was disappointed by the decision, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “While we understand the group’s behavior was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way that these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system,” he said.

The Pussy Riot case has stoked the resentment of opposition partisans who have turned out for a series of huge anti-Putin rallies since last winter.

Alexei Navalny, a key leader behind those protests, condemned the verdict as a “cynical mockery of justice” and said the opposition will step up its protests.

Even some Kremlin loyalists strongly criticized the verdict. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said it has dealt “yet another blow to the court system and citizens’ trust in it.” “The country’s image and its attractiveness in the eyes of investors have suffered an enormous damage,” he said.

Mikhail Fedotov, the head of a presidential advisory council on human rights, criticized the verdict and voiced hope that the sentence will be repealed or at least softened.

And Mikhail Barshchevsky, a lawyer who represents the Cabinet in high courts, said that the verdict had no basis in Russian criminal law

The Pussy Riot case has underlined the vast influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although church and state are formally separate, the church identifies itself as the heart of Russian national identity and critics say its strength effectively makes it a quasi-state entity. Some Orthodox groups and many believers had urged strong punishment for an action they consider blasphemous.

The head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, has made no secret of his strong support for Putin, praising his presidencies as “God’s miracle,” and he described the performance as part of an assault by “enemy forces” on the church. He avoided talking to the media as he left Warsaw’s Royal Castle following a ceremony in which he and the head of Poland’s Catholic Church called for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation.

The judge relied extensively on the testimony of church laymen, who said they were offended and shocked by the band’s stunt. “The actions of the defendants reflected their hatred of religion,” Syrova said in the verdict.

The Orthodox Church said in a statement after the verdict that the band’s stunt was a “sacrilege” and a “reflection of rude animosity toward millions of people and their feelings.” It also asked the authorities to “show clemency toward the convicted in the hope that they will refrain from new sacrilegious actions.”

The case comes in the wake of several recently passed laws cracking down on opposition, including one that raised the fine for taking part in an unauthorized demonstrations by 150 times to 300,000 rubles (about $9,000).

Another measure requires non-government organizations that both engage in vaguely defined political activity and receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.”

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Lynn Berry, Jim Heintz, Mansur Mirovalev and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.