MOSCOW Russia's human rights ombudsman on Thursday called the prison sentences handed down to three women from punk band Pussy Riot "excessive" and warned that the case was igniting dangerous tensions within society.
The trio were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred by a Moscow court on August 17 after belting out a profanity-laced anti-Putin song on the altar of Moscow's main cathedral in February.
Vladimir Lukin, who was originally nominated for his advisory role by President Vladimir Putin, said he might challenge the sentencing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich if their jail terms were upheld on appeal.
"It is a misdemeanor that in a normal, civilized European state, which Russia is, is handled in administrative rather than criminal proceedings. That's why I think the ruling on those women is excessive," he told a news conference when asked about the case.
Western governments and singers have condemned the sentences as disproportionate and the case has become a cause celebre in Western media where most commentators have echoed the Russian opposition's charge that the verdict was part of a crackdown on dissent by Putin.
However, the Kremlin has denounced foreign criticism as politically-motivated. [ID:nL6E8JMJB7] Many Russian Orthodox believers have also said they were offended by the protest, part of a wave of demonstrations against Putin ahead of his re-election to the presidency in March for a third term.
The women said they meant no offence and were protesting against close ties between the state and the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, likened Putin's years at the helm to a "miracle of God" a few weeks before the Pussy Riot protest.
Lukin, a former liberal lawmaker and ambassador to the United States, said the women's stunt was not a crime but a "quite serious misdemeanor".
He said he hoped an appeals court would "more carefully consider all the aspects of this case" and that as ombudsman he had the right to challenge the verdict once it entered into force if he believed human rights had been violated.
"If the sentence remains the same ... I will analyze this thoroughly," he said.
Lawyers for the women have said they expect to file an appeal next week.
"POISONOUS SUBSTANCE OF INTOLERANCE"
The maximum sentence for the crime they were accused of was seven years in jail, but after Putin said they had done "nothing good" but "should not be judged too harshly" the state prosecutor asked for three-year sentences.
Hours after the verdict, the Russian Orthodox Church urged the state to show mercy to the women "within the framework of the law", raising the possibility it might back a presidential pardon or a reduction in their terms.
Lukin suggested the Pussy Riot case, which has inflamed emotions among both liberal and conservative Russians, was widening dangerous rifts in a society that has endured repeated upheaval over the past century.
"It is regrettable that a poisonous substance of intolerance and brutality is spreading in our society. Recently it has become typical and even fashionable not to discuss problems but to lash about at one another," Lukin said.
"The instinct for dialogue is fading and the fighting instinct is coming into the foreground. This is very dangerous."
In April, Patriarch Kirill called the Pussy Riot protest part of an "attack by persecutors" on the church and on what it regards as traditional Russian values.
Priests have reported an increase in the vandalism of churches, while liberals fear Pussy Riot's jail term will encourage extreme nationalists and lead to violence.
A nationalist, Russian Orthodox activist group called Holy Rus said this week it was establishing volunteer patrols to guard churches and prevent any further blasphemous acts.
"This is a horrible idea," said Lukin, who called on the authorities to look into the initiative, which he suggested evoked the turbulence that preceded the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
"Have we not had enough of our own history when various volunteer patrols of enthusiasts ... were beating up other enthusiasts? And all that led a civil war."
(Editing by Steve Gutterman and Andrew Osborn)