MOSCOW (Reuters) - A member of punk band Pussy Riot was freed on appeal on Wednesday but a Moscow court upheld prison sentences for two others imposed over a raucous cathedral protest against Vladimir Putin, who said they had got the jail terms they deserved.
Yekaterina Samutsevich walked free from Moscow City Court after six months behind bars but the appeal judge who suspended her two-year sentence said fellow band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina should serve out their terms.
“I have mixed feelings,” Samutsevich said outside the court, where she was greeted by applause and whistles from a crowd of about 150 people in the rain. “I’m happy, of course, but I am upset about the girls.”
Samutsevich, 30, Tolokonnikova, 22, and Alyokhina, 24, were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for a “punk prayer” imploring the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin, and sentenced to two years in jail.
The case had sparked an international outcry, with Western governments and pop star Madonna condemning the sentences as disproportionate, a view not widely shared in Russia where public opinion was shocked by the protest.
Her lawyer told the court that Samutsevich had not performed the “punk protest” near the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February because she had been stopped and led away before it took place.
Samutsevich’s father Stanislav said he would take his daughter away for a time to rest but that when she returned to Moscow “she will fight for the rest of the girls”.
Defense lawyers, relatives of the women and rights activists including the chairman of Putin’s own presidential human rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, welcomed Samutsevich’s release but criticized the split ruling.
“It would be reasonable to release all the women,” Fedotov told Reuters. “What they did was minor hooliganism, for which they should have got 15 days of detention.”
Calling for the immediate release of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, Amnesty International said in a statement: “Justice has not been done today.”
A spokeswoman for the EU foreign policy chief said Catherine Ashton had been “deeply disappointed” by the original verdict and regretted the appeals of two of the women were rejected.
In emotional statements from a courtroom cage during the hearing, women from the band said they had not meant to offend the faithful but criticize Putin, who foes say has cracked down on dissent since starting a new Kremlin term in May.
“We’ll be going to a prison colony while civil war is brewing in this country. Putin is doing everything to make this happen,” Tolokonnikova said, raising her voice to drown out the judge, who interrupted when she mentioned the president’s name. “He is setting people against each other.”
In an interview aired on Sunday to mark his 60th birthday, Putin defended the sentences: “It is right that they were arrested and it was right that the court took this decision because you cannot undermine the fundamental morals and values to destroy the country.”
Defense lawyer Mark Feigin said those comments had compromised the appeal and Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina told the hearing their protest was purely political.
“We did not want to offend believers,” said Alyokhina. “We came to the cathedral to speak out against the merger between spiritual figures and the political elite of our country.”
Tolokonnikova said the group was not motivated by religious hatred: “It’s painful for me to hear that I am speaking out against religion. I have no religious hatred and never have.”
Feigin said they would continue to fight their conviction on procedural grounds and also take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The women say their protest was an comment on the close ties between the Kremlin and Russia’s dominant church, which considers about two-thirds of the population as its flock.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill had given Putin, then prime minister, unofficial but clear support in his campaign for a third presidential term, likening Putin’s years in power to a “miracle of God”.
Kremlin opponents said the jail terms were part of a clampdown on dissent since Putin began his six-year term in May.
“We are in jail for our political convictions,” Alyokhina said. “Even if our sentences are upheld, we will not be silent. Even if we are in Mordovia or Siberia, we will not be silent.”
Sympathy for Pussy Riot is limited in Russia, where Patriarch Kirill has cast the protest as part of a concerted attack meant to undermine traditional Russian values and curb the church’s post-Soviet revival.
An opinion poll conducted on September 21-24 by the independent Levada centre found 35 percent of Russians believe the two-year sentences were appropriate, while 34 percent said they were too lenient and only 14 percent said they were excessive.
Parliament is considering stiffening punishment for offending religious feelings and Putin has warned that such offences - against Christians, Muslims or other believers in diverse Russia - could incite violence.
“The Russian Orthodox Church has practically become the state religion,” said human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85, a Soviet-era dissident. The constitution stipulates that Russia is a secular state.
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Boyle and Alison Williams