MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court on Monday adjourned until October 10 an appeal hearing for the three members of the Pussy Riot punk band jailed over a profanity-laced anti-Kremlin protest in a church after one of the trio dismissed her lawyers.
Supporters of the group in colorful T-shirts let off red, white and blue balloons saying “Pussy Riot” outside the court as Russian Orthodox Christians sang hymns and accused the women of blasphemy.
Inside the crowded Moscow courtroom, Yekaterina Samutsevich, sitting in a glass cage with her band mates, told the judges she disagreed with her lawyers’ handling of the case and fired them.
“My position on the criminal case does not match their position,” Samutsevich said of her lawyers.
The hearing was delayed for 10 days to give Samutsevich time to hire new lawyers as she seeks a reduction of the two-year sentence, which drew criticism of President Vladimir Putin from abroad after it was handed down on August 17.
Western governments see the sentences as excessive, and opposition groups see it as part of a crackdown on dissent by Putin, but many Russians regard the protest band as irreverent self-publicists.
Samutsevich, 30, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after storming into the Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow in February and belting out a “punk prayer” asking the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
Relatives and defense lawyers of the three women suggested Samutsevich’s decision was a result of pressure by the state authorities intended to persuade them to plead guilty.
They have until now remained united, saying they were not guilty of any crime and that they did not mean to offend Orthodox Russian Christians.
Samutsevich’s father, Stanislav, said he hoped to convince his daughter to reverse her decision: “I think it’s a very deep mistake, some mistaken assessment of what is happening.”
“I think there is some delusion and also one feels some pressure from the outside on Katya. Apparently they promised her something. I have this strange feeling that somebody is trying to break the whole defense apart,” he added.
Mark Feigin, one of three defense lawyers, said the decision could weaken the women’s defense in a case they say is politically motivated.
“The pressure is not subsiding. It continues and it would be naive to think that the authorities will just let it go,” said another defense lawyer, Nikolai Polozov.
“From various sides they are trying to weaken their position. They have the line of not admitting guilt, and consider that they have committed only an administrative offence ... The authorities don’t like that.”
Some in the courtroom also said the move was just aimed at forcing delay to the case.
Global celebrities, including Paul McCartney and Madonna, called for leniency for the women before their verdict last month.
But their two-year sentences were seen by the opposition, and by some Western governments, as part of increasingly aggressive tactics against the opposition following the biggest protests of Putin’s 12 years in power.
Since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May for a six-year term, parliament has expelled an opposition leader and approved laws raising fines for protesters, stiffening punishment for defamation and tightening checks on foreign-funded lobby groups.
Another bill under consideration would institute jail terms of up to three years for offending religious feelings.
A group of Orthodox believers quoted the law in their request to prosecutors in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don to ban the staging of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar in a local theatre, local officials said.
They said believers had asked for the musical to be cancelled but ticket sales had been resumed after half a day’s suspension as the theatre considered what to do.
A church spokesman on Sunday urged the trio to repent. A pardon or a reduced sentence would require them to admit guilt.
The band say the protest, in bright ski masks, tights and short skirts, was motivated by anger over Putin’s closeness to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church who has called Putin’s rule a “miracle of God”.
A recent official opinion poll showed that more than half of Russians disapprove of what Pussy Riot did and consider their two-year sentence to be just. Less than a third said the opposite.
Many Russian Orthodox believers consider Christ the Saviour one of the most revered holy sites in the country, where religion has flourished since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood