EU to Russia: Free Pussy Riot
A Moscow court on Friday (17 August) sentenced three young women from the Pussy Riot band to two years in jail for their "punk prayer" - a protest song performed in a cathedral and criticising President Vladimir Putin.
The verdict came in a packed room where the women, all in their 20s, sat smiling in a glass cage and showing their handcuffs to a crush of TV crews in perhaps most highly mediatised Russian trial since that of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
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The ruling - guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" - took three hours to read out, as the judge felt the need to re-read all the testimonies filed against them, complete with accusations of "sacrilege," "blasphemy", wearing "colourful and inappropriate clothes in a church [including] no head scarves" and trespassing in an "area of the church forbidden to women."
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina (both mothers of young children) and Yekaterina Samutsevich were also found guilty of "conspiracy" as they had "carefully" prepared their stunt on 21 February in Moscow's main cathedral, in which they implored the Virgin Mary to oust President Putin from power and accused the head of the Russian Orthodox Church of cozying up to the regime.
The trial is seen as yet another proof of Putin's decision to run his second presidency with an iron fist and his determination to crack down on opposition and dissent after a period of thaw during the presidency of Dmitry Medevedev.
Protests in support of Pussy Riot were staged on Friday in Moscow, Brussels, London, Berlin and Barcelona. Chess star and anti-Putin politician Gary Kasparov was reportedly arrested during the demonstrations.
Pop and rock singers from Madonna to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul McCartney and Sting have all voiced their outrage over the affair in recent weeks.
The three women have already been in pre-trial jail for five months.
For her part, the EU's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on Friday said the sentence was "disproportionate" and called for it to be reversed.
"This case adds to the recent upsurge in politically motivated intimidation and prosecution of opposition activists in the Russian Federation, a trend that is of growing concern to the European Union. Respect for human rights and the rule of law is an indispensable part of the EU-Russia relationship," she said.
"Sentencing of the three young women, two of whom are mothers of small children, to two years in prison for a peaceful, if controversial, expression of their views, is deeply troubling."
Activists in Brussels were also worried about the signals sent out by the trial.
Philippe Hensemans, head of the Brussels branch of Amnesty International - a worldwide human rights group - told this website that the sentence is "part of a worrying re-evaluation of civil rights in Russia."
"Tolokonnikova was right in her testimony. If you are strong, you don't fear three punks singing. They were not asking for riots, it was a quite peaceful protest and they left quickly after their performance. Hooliganism based on religious sacrilege is a strange concept for a court," he noted.
Gay Pride banned for 100 years
Meanwhile, in a further blow to hum a rights campaigners, Moscow's top court on Friday upheld a ban on gay pride marches for the next 100 years, as imposed by the city council.
The case was brought by Nikolay Alexeyev, a gay rights campaigner, who has vowed to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.