LONDON (Reuters) - Fresh from cheering a Russian judo star to a gold medal at the Olympic Games, President Vladimir Putin urged leniency on Thursday for members of a female punk band on trial for protesting against him at the altar of a Moscow cathedral.
Putin told Interfax news agency that there was “nothing good” about the protest by the band Pussy Riot, which outraged many Russian Orthodox believers on the eve of Putin’s latest presidential election win.
“Nonetheless, I don’t think that they should be judged so harshly for this,” Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying.
“I hope the court will come out with the right decision, a well-founded one,” Putin was quoted as saying.
Such comments from Russia’s most powerful man are likely to ensure that the women’s band do not get long prison sentences, though he did not define what he meant by “harshly”.
Putin, who has ruled Russia since the turn of the century, is facing international criticism for trying to silence dissent.
He was speaking after watching fellow countryman Tagir Khaibulaev win Russia’s third judo gold of the London Games, a victory that prompted Putin to leap to his feet in delight.
At 45 minutes of talks at Downing Street, for which Putin put in an unusually punctual appearance, Prime Minister David Cameron raised the issues of Syria and the fate of Pussy Riot.
But Cameron failed to get Putin to take a tougher public line on Syria, Russia’s firmest foothold in the Middle East, or a pledge to stop blocking Western-backed resolutions aimed at stepping up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.
In a stark illustration of the still frosty ties between Britain and Russia, Putin used his stretched, Russian-number-plated black Mercedes limousine to travel to the judo, while Cameron used his armored grey Jaguar.
For the 59-year-old Kremlin chief, who revels in his hard-man image, the sight of judokas body-slamming each other on the Olympic mats offered a powerful backdrop to his talks and the opportunity for a stunt.
A black belt and one-time judo champion in his native city of St Petersburg, Putin talked animatedly with Cameron through a translator as they watched, and appeared to be explaining the sport to his host.
The former KGB spy rushed down to the mats to congratulate Khaibulaev, embracing him with a Russian bear hug and then posing for photographs while Russians, one even dressed in a white fur hat, waved the Russian red, blue and white flag embossed with the two headed Russian eagle.
Russia had not won a judo gold since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union so the London Games are by far their most successful games in the sport since then.
Russia’s leader appeared elated at the win and in good spirits on his first trip to Britain since the 2006 death from radiation poisoning in London of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko.
Ties between the two countries have been frosty because of Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect in the murder.
“He (Putin) is not welcome in London, neither by Russians who live here or Londoners themselves,” Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, who lives in Britain, told Reuters.
Putin’s last visit to London was in 2003, though he attended the Group of Eight summit in 2005 at Gleneagles in Scotland.
In previous foreign trips, Putin has showed off his judo skills on the mats. This time, despite a plea from London Mayor Boris Johnson, he stayed in his dark business suit.
“Oh, I hope he will take part. What is he, a dab (hand)? I think that’s what we want to see, stripped to the waist. We want the politicians’ Olympics, that’s what we want,” Johnson said.
Putin is facing criticism in Moscow for trying to silence dissent after the Pussy Riot case and the charging of a prominent opposition blogger, Alexei Navalny, with embezzlement.
As he entered the prime minister’s office in central London, a protester’s shout of “Free Pussy Riot” echoed across Downing Street.
In a letter in The Times newspaper, a dozen leading rock musicians including Jarvis Cocker urged Putin to give a fair trial to the group, whose members face up to seven years in jail for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility”.
Andrey Sidelnikov, one of a handful of protesters outside Downing Street, was wearing a “Free Pussy Riot” t-shirt.
“We don’t want to see Putin in a democratic country, and we want to send a message to Cameron about supporting political prisoners in Russia,” he said. “In a real democracy you can’t be sent to prison for singing a song.”
Russia has faced growing Western criticism of its position on Syria, with the United States and Britain demanding Moscow drop its support for Assad.
Western powers believe that ousting Assad is the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria, though diplomats say privately that there is little appetite in Western capitals for direct military involvement.
Russia, on the other hand, provides arms to Damascus and has blocked three Western resolutions calling for an increase in pressure on Assad.
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Gleb Bryanski in Moscow and Mo Abbas and Michael Holden in London; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mark Trevelyan