Church urges mercy for Pussy Riot

 

The Russian Orthodox Church has urged the state to show mercy to three women from the rock group Pussy Riot who were jailed today over a protest against president Vladimir Putin in a church.

The church's intervention raises the possibility that it could back a pardon or a reduction of their terms.

The church reiterated its criticism of the women from the punk collective, saying their protest in Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral was "blasphemy" and displayed "crude hostility towards millions of people".

But it added in a statement: "Without subjecting the rightfulness of the court's decision to any doubt, we call on the state authorities to show mercy to the people convicted within the framework of the law, in the hope that they will refrain from repeating blasphemous actions."

The remarks indicated the Church would not object if Mr Putin pardoned the three women or if their two-year sentences were reduced though other legal means.

However, the women would likely have to request a pardon to be considered and might be required to admit guilt, which they have said they would not do.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22) Marina Alyokhina (24) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (30) were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for the February protest, which they said was against Putin's close ties to the church.

Kremlin opponents and Western governments have criticised the trial and called the sentences disproportionate.

The church leadership cast the performance as part of an attack on the faithful and on Russian values in general.

The church statement said that "in our society, inciting enmity and hatred on religious and ethnic grounds always carries a threat of destructive shocks" and urged people who were offended not to seek "revenge".

Supporters of the jailed women say their case has put Mr 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 Russians sympathise with them.

Judge Marina Syrova today 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 called Punk Prayer which mocked Mr Putin.

The women say they were protesting against Mr Putin's close ties with the church when they burst onto the altar in Moscow's golden domed Christ the Saviour Cathedral wearing 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, Mr Putin's opponents portray the trial as part of a wider crackdown by the former KGB spy to crush their protest movement.

"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.

Mr 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," Mr 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 per cent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility, and the rest were unable to say or were indifferent.

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 in Russia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.