MOSCOW Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Wednesday he thought that three female members of punk band Pussy Riot who were sentenced to two years in jail last month for a political protest in a Moscow cathedral should be freed.
Medvedev, who was president for four years until May, appeared to be trying to disassociate himself from the jail terms which were condemned as excessive by the West and rights groups at home, as well as by liberal Russians.
When president, Medvedev styled himself as a liberal reformer, and though he handed the presidency back to Vladimir Putin he has made it clear he wants to remain in politics and perhaps even return to the presidency one day.
The three band members - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich - were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred on August 17 after belting out a profanity-laced song criticizing Putin on the altar of Moscow's main cathedral in February.
They have been in jail since March and their appeal is due to start being heard on October 1.
"The prolongation of their incarceration in the conditions of jail seems to me to be unproductive," Medvedev said in televised remarks. "A suspended sentence, taking into account time they have already spent (in jail), would be entirely sufficient," he added.
However, Medvedev criticized the women, saying he was "sickened by what they did, by their looks, by the hysteria which followed what had happened".
He said prison is "very, very strict" punishment as a rule.
Medvedev emphasized he was expressing his personal view only and was not seeking to influence the case.
The band members had faced up to seven years in prison, but Putin said during the trial that they should not be judged "too harshly" and prosecutors subsequently requested three-year sentences; they were sentenced to two years each in the end.
In a television interview last week, Putin declined to comment on whether he believed the sentences were fitting, saying he was not interfering in the case.
But he suggested the band had forced its "indecent" name into public discourse and said abuses committed against the Russian Orthodox Church and other faiths in the Soviet era meant "the state is obliged to protect the feelings of believers".
(Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Andrew Osborn)