MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court’s decision to hand two-year jail terms to punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Kremlin song in Moscow’s main cathedral prompted fury in the West and refocused attention on President Vladimir Putin’s rights record.
But as a judge prepares to rule on Monday on an appeal filed by the three female jailed band members their legal team and their relatives hold out little hope that the sentences - which they believe were overly harsh - will be quashed or reduced.
“Such a decision is impossible,” said Mark Feigin, a defense lawyer. “The courts are not independent and to imagine them making a decision based on the law would be a fantasy.”
The case has damaged the Russian government’s reputation in the West and raised awkward questions about its relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, while the West’s criticism has angered the Kremlin and irked many Russians who view the women as publicity-hungry provocateurs rather than freedom fighters.
The appeal ruling will have serious implications for the trio involved. Stanislav Samutsevich, father of Yekaterina Samutsevich, one of the three, never went for more than a month without seeing his only daughter before she was jailed.
In the seven months since she and the others were detained he has visited her in prison every other week and in court.
But if Monday’s appeal fails to overturn the two-year jail sentence handed down to her and her two band mates for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” she will be sent to a distant prison colony and he will only be allowed rare visits.
He now spends his time surfing Internet forums to chat with other convict’s relatives about prison conditions.
“When I last saw her on Friday, she complained about the lack of information. She was worried about how to react, about what will happen after the court,” he told Reuters. “I was calming her down.”
Opposition activists argue that the harsh sentences were personally ordered by Putin as part of a crackdown on dissent following his return to the presidency in May, an event foreshadowed by the biggest protests against the former KGB agent since he was first elected head of state in 2000.
Putin has repeatedly said he did not and will not interfere in the judicial process, though Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said he thinks the trio should be released.
Some saw Medvedev’s comments as a sign that the trio may receive leniency but political analysts say he has little power to influence the appeal, and other moves suggest the Kremlin is in no mood to allow the women’s release.
It has a limited incentive to do so. Although the West has criticized the verdict, opinion polls showed a majority of people in mainly Orthodox Christian Russia opposed the Pussy Riot protest, though fewer wanted tough jail sentences.
Parliament expelled an opposition leader from parliament earlier this month and has pushed through laws raising fines for protesters, stiffening punishment for defamation and tightening controls over foreign-funded lobby groups since May.
Another bill under consideration in parliament, where Putin’s United Russia has a majority, would institute jail terms of up to three years for offending religious feelings.
Andrei Isayev, a party deputy from the ruling United Russia party, in his radio program this month called the women’s conviction “just and humane” punishment for a performance he likened to “dancing on the graves of believers’ relatives.”
Samutsevich, 30, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and 24-year-old Maria Alyokhina were sentenced on August 17, six months after criticizing Putin’s close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church in a “punk prayer”.
The trial exposed Putin to international criticism because of doubts over the independence of the judiciary, and global celebrities including British musician Paul McCartney, a former Beatle, and U.S. pop singer Madonna, called for leniency.
A Church statement after the verdict indicated that the clergy would back a pardon or a reduced sentence, but that would have required the women to admit their guilt. They have not done so.
They say their protest, in brightly-colored balaclavas, tights and short skirts, was not intended to offend believers and was motivated by anger over Putin’s growing closeness to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Kirill has called Putin’s rule a “miracle of God” and backed his presidential election campaign this year. Kirill dismissed criticism of his backing for the Kremlin on Friday, telling students that close ties between the church and state helped protect and develop society.
But the debate over whether the three women should have been jailed has deepened a split in society to a degree rarely seen since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Soon after their trial, a group that took responsibility for the desecration of four wooden crosses that were chopped up in Russia said it was a protest against Pussy Riot’s jailing.
A group of ultra-religious opponents of Pussy Riot has started organizing vigilante patrols at night in Moscow because its members fear the state cannot protect church property.
The bill criminalizing insults to religious sentiment could tighten the bonds between Putin and the Orthodox Church.
“The law is being drafted to protect the process of the merging of the church and state,” rights activist Valery Borshev said. “It will be selectively applied to those who speak out.”
Additional reporting and writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Andrew Osborn