MOSCOW — A Moscow appeals court on Wednesday unexpectedly freed one member of a female punk rock band, but upheld the two-year prison sentence for two others jailed for an irreverent protest against President Vladimir Putin.
All three women were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They argued in court on Wednesday that their impromptu performance inside Moscow’s main cathedral in February was political in nature and not an attack on religion.
The Moscow City Court ruled that Yekaterina Samutsevich’s sentence should be suspended because she was thrown out of the cathedral by guards before she could remove her guitar from its case and take part in the performance.
“The punishment for an incomplete crime is much lighter than for a completed one,” said Samutsevich’s lawyer, Irina Khrunova. “She did not participate in the actions the court found constituted hooliganism.”
Dressed in neon-colored miniskirts and tights, with homemade balaclavas covering their faces, the women performed a “punk prayer” asking Virgin Mary to save Russia from Mr. Putin, as he headed into a March election that would hand him a third term.
“If we unintentionally offended any believers with our actions, we express our apologies,” said Miss Samutsevich, who along with Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova spoke in court from inside a glass cage known colloquially as the “aquarium.”
“The idea of the protest was political, not religious,” she said.
“In this and in previous protests, we acted against the current government of the president, and against the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution of the Russian government, against the political comments of the Russian patriarch.
“Exactly because of this, I don’t consider that I committed a crime.”
The case has been condemned in the United States and Europe, where it has been seen as an illustration of Mr. Putin’s intensifying crackdown on dissent after his return to the presidency from four years as prime minister.
Mr. Putin, however, recently said the two-year sentence was justified.
“It is impermissible to undermine our moral foundations, moral values, to try to destroy the country,” he said.
The appeal was postponed from Oct. 1 after Miss Samutsevich fired her lawyers. Prosecutors criticized the move as a delaying tactic.
Her father, Stanislav Samutsevich, attributed his daughter’s release mostly to the change in lawyers. He said he was deeply sorry for the two others, who are expected to be sent to a prison colony to serve out their sentences.
Defense lawyers said Mr. Putin’s remarks amounted to pressure on the appeals court.
“I want a ruling on President Putin on the inadmissibility of his meddling in a court decision,” defense lawyer Mark Feigin said.
The Russian Orthodox Church had said the appeals court should show leniency if the three women repented.
The women said Wednesday that they could not repent because they harbored no religious hatred and had committed no crime. Their protest, they said, was against Mr. Putin and the church hierarchy for openly supporting his rule.