MOSCOW Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Wednesday he thought three Pussy Riot punk band members should be freed from prison following their conviction last month for a profanity-laced protest against Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral.
Western governments and singers such as Madonna condemned their two-year jail terms as excessive and their lawyer Nikolai Polozov said Medvedev's comments indicated the government was concerned about the level of criticism it has faced.
"A suspended sentence, taking into account time they have already spent (in jail), would be entirely sufficient," Medvedev said in televised remarks.
The comments by Medvedev, who was president for four years until May, appeared designed to disassociate him from the jail terms, which were also condemned by domestic rights groups, liberal Russians and opponents of President Putin.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred on August 17 after belting out a song criticizing Putin, then prime minister, in Moscow's main cathedral in February.
They have been in jail since March and their appeal against the verdict and two-year jail terms is due to start on October 1.
A lawyer for the jailed women, Nikolai Polozov, welcomed Medvedev's comments: "We see that the rhetoric is changing. The authorities, in the form of Dmitry Medvedev, have realized that this story has gone way too far."
Medvedev spoke at a meeting in the city of Penza, southeast of Moscow, with members of the ruling United Russia party, whose chairmanship he inherited from Putin in May.
He said many Russians had found the Pussy Riot protest offensive and emphasized he was expressing his personal view only and was not seeking to influence the case.
A survey conducted by Russian polling agency, the Public Opinion Foundation after the verdict found that 53 percent of Russians believed the two-year sentences were fair and 27 percent said they were unjust.
Putin steered Medvedev into the presidency when he faced a constitutional bar on a third straight term in 2008, but was seen as calling the shots as prime minister. He returned to the Kremlin after winning an election in March.
Analysts say that, unlike Putin, Medvedev has little power to intervene in the case even if he wanted to. They say his position as prime minister is precarious and that he would be a likely scapegoat should Russia's economy deteriorate.
Another member of the defense team, Mark Feigin, doubted Medvedev's statement would lead to shorter sentences for the band members as "because Medvedev does not have the authority. He's not a politically influential figure in Russia's authoritarian hierarchy".
"Medvedev's words do not have decisive significance," added analyst Yevgeny Volk. But he said that they "reflected the mood of the liberal part of society."
The band members had faced up to seven years in prison, but Putin said during the trial that they should not be judged "so harshly" and prosecutors subsequently sought three-year terms.
Putin last week declined to comment on the sentences, but suggested the band had forced its "indecent" name into public discourse and that the state had a duty to protect the feelings of believers after abuses during the Soviet era.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has cast the Pussy Riot protest as a part of a concerted attack on the church and on Russian society itself, though the church has also urged the state to show mercy.
(Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Jon Boyle)