Putin hints at leniency for punk band


President Vladimir Putin said yesterday the three women in the band Pussy Riot who performed a "protest prayer" at Russia's main cathedral should not be judged too harshly, raising defence lawyers' hopes that they could escape lengthy jail terms.

Mr Putin's comments, reported by Russian news agencies during his visit to London, suggested the three members of the punk band could escape the maximum seven-year jail term following international criticism of the Kremlin over the case.

Mr Putin said here was "nothing good" about the band's protest, Interfax reported.

"Nonetheless, I don't think that they should be judged so harshly for this," he said, adding that it was up to the court to decide the case. "I hope the court will come out with the right decision, a well-founded one."

Western governments have criticised the prosecution of the women and human rights groups as well as Red Hot Chili Peppers and other performers have called for their immediate release.

Russian opposition leaders have depicted the trial as part of a crackdown on dissent since Mr Putin began a third term as president on May 7th.

A lawyer for the band members said Putin's statements were a signal to Western critics, and to the judicial authorities trying the three women to show leniency.

"In my opinion this is a gesture towards the West, towards the consumers of Russian energy resources and (Putin's) business partners," defence lawyer Nikolai Polozov said at the court.

"Given the significance of such signals, we can expect some softening of the prosecution's position," he said.

He expressed caution in a remark on Twitter, however, saying: "To tell the truth, I don't believe Putin. If the signal gets through and the court reacts, OK, but if not we will fight on."

Maria Alyokhina (24) Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (29) offended many Russian Orthodox Christian believers with the protest on February 21st on the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

They are being tried on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred over the performance in which they called on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out!"

Opinion polls suggest many Russians believe the women, who have been jailed for about five months, should not face more time behind bars.

Prosecutors are to recommend a sentence at the end of the trial.

Pyotr Verzilov, Ms Tolokonnikova's husband, said Mr Putin's remarks could increase the chances the women would get suspended sentences and avoid further time in jail.

"Putin is Russia's court. He will decide the verdict in the end," Mr Verzilov said. "He is feeling enormous pressure both at home as well as abroad and, obviously, under such circumstances he no longer wants to be a bloody dictator."

The three have denied they were motivated by hate, and said they were protesting against close ties between church and state. They were particularly angered by the support the Russian Orthodox Church's leader, Patriarch Kirill, gave Mr Putin in his presidential election campaign this year.

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