MOSCOW Two women were found stabbed to death in a Russian apartment with the words "Free Pussy Riot" written on the wall in what was probably blood, investigators said on Thursday, stirring more passion over the women jailed for a protest in a church.
A Russian Orthodox Church official said supporters of Pussy Riot now had "blood on their conscience", the Interfax news agency reported.
A lawyer for the women, who were sentenced to two years in prison this month for staging a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin in Moscow's main cathedral, said nobody in the band or connected with it was involved in the crime.
Nikolai Polozov, said the words scrawled on the wall may have been a "provocation" aimed to discredit Pussy Riot.
The bodies of a 76-year-old pensioner and her 38-year-old daughter were found on Wednesday in their apartment in the city of Kazan, the federal Investigative Committee said in a statement. They died from knife wounds.
"BLOOD ON CONSCIENCE"
"At the crime scene, on the wall of the apartment was discovered an inscription presumably written in blood: 'Free Pussy Riot'," said the committee, which is Russia's top investigative body and answers to Putin.
Footage on state-run Rossiya television showed the words written in big red capital letters on the kitchen wall. There was no apparent connection between the victims and Pussy Riot.
Five members of the group burst into Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral in February and performed a "punk prayer" asking the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin, who was then campaigning for election as president after four years as prime minister.
The trial and sentencing of the activists has drawn sharp criticism from foreign governments, musicians and rights groups, and was seen by Putin's foes in Russia as politically motivated punishment for dissent.
The head of the church department for relations with the armed forces and law enforcement agencies, Dimitry Smirnov, suggested the crime might not have occurred if Pussy Riot had not received vocal support from Russian and Western critics of their trial.
"This blood is on the conscience of so-called community that has supported the participants in the act in Christ the Saviour cathedral, because as a result people with unstable psyches have received carte-blanche," Interfax quoted Smirnov as saying.
The Russian Orthodox Church has cast the performance as a blasphemous attack on the country's main faith, and nationalist pro-church activists have called for vigilantes to protect churches from desecration.
Polozov, a lawyer for the jailed performers, said the crime was not connected with Pussy Riot or its supporters.
"It's horrible. In my view it is either a monstrous provocation or the act of a sick maniac. In any case it's not connected with Pussy Riot because Pussy Riot only supports peaceful and non-violent protests," he said.
"There have been many protests in support of Pussy Riot and they've never been violent," said Polozov, who appealed the Pussy Riot convictions on Monday.
A spokesman for the regional Investigative Committee branch in Kazan, 800 km (500 miles) east of Moscow, said he did not believe a supporter of Pussy Riot was responsible.
"It was a regular robbery, a regular robbery and some degenerate wrote that. It's doubtful that some (Pussy Riot) supporter wrote that," Andrei Sheptitsky said by telephone.
Bloggers sympathetic to Pussy Riot said it would be ridiculous to blame the crime on their supporters.
"Supporters of Pussy Riot are responsible for letting loose war in Syria," Slavik Tsener wrote with apparent sarcasm on his Twitter microblog.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred on August 17.
They said the performance, which came amidst a series of opposition street protests that were the largest of Putin's 12-year rule, was meant as criticism of Putin's tightly controlled political system and the close ties between church and state in Russia, which the constitution says is a secular country.
A survey released on Thursday by state-controlled All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) showed 33 percent of those asked found the two-year sentences too harsh, while 31 percent said they were appropriate.
Fifteen percent said they were too lenient and 10 percent said the women should not have been tried at all, according to VTsIOM, which interviewed 1,600 people in 46 provinces.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Andrew Roche)