(REUTERS) – Three women from the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail on Friday for their protest in a church against President Vladimir Putin, an outcome supporters described as the Kremlin leader’s “personal revenge”.
The group’s backers burst into chants of “Shame” outside the Moscow courthouse and said the case showed Putin’s refusal to tolerate dissent in his new six-year term as president. Dozens were detained as tensions rose and scuffles broke out.
The United States and the European Union condemned the sentence as disproportionate and asked for it to be reviewed, although state prosecutors had demanded a three-year jail term and the maximum sentence possible was seven years.
But while the women have support abroad, where their case has been taken up by a long list of celebrities including Madonna, Paul McCartney and Sting, opinion polls show few Russians sympathize with them.
“The girls’ actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church’s rules,” Judge Marina Syrova told the court as she spent three hours reading the verdict while the women stood watching in handcuffs inside a glass courtroom cage.
She declared all three guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, saying they had deliberately offended Russian Orthodox believers by storming the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral in February to belt out a song deriding Putin.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, giggled as the judge read out the sentences one by one.
They have already been in jail for about five months, meaning they will serve only another 19, and could be released if Putin were to pardon them. The Orthodox Church hinted it would not oppose such a move by appealing, belatedly, for mercy.
Pussy Riot took on two powerful state institutions at once when they burst into Moscow’s golden-domed Christ the Saviour Cathedral wearing bright ski masks, tights and short skirts to protest against Putin’s close ties with the Church.
Putin’s opponents depicted the case as part of a crackdown by the ex-KGB spy against a protest movement that took off over the winter, attracting what witnesses said were at times crowds of 100,000 people in Moscow to oppose his return to power.
“They are in jail because it is Putin’s personal revenge,” Alexei Navalny, one of the organizers of the protests, said outside the court. “This verdict was written by Vladimir Putin.”
Putin’s spokesman did not immediately answer calls following the verdict, but the president’s supporters said before the trial that he would have no influence on the court’s decision.
Declaring the sentence to be just, Irina Yarovaya, a parliamentary deputy from Putin’s United Russia party, said: “They deserved it.”
A police source told Itar-Tass news agency 50 people had been detained by police near the court after scuffles broke out. Among them were Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist opposition leader, and Garry Kasparov, the chess great and vehement Putin critic.
Although Pussy Riot have never made a record or had a hit song, foreign singers have also demanded the trio’s release. Madonna performed in Moscow this month with “PUSSY RIOT” painted on her back and wearing a ski mask in solidarity.
But Valentina Ivanova, 60, a retired doctor, said outside the courtroom: “What they did showed disrespect towards everything, and towards believers first of all.”
A poll of Russians released by the independent Levada research group showed only 6 percent sympathized with the women and 51 percent found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility. The rest could not say or were indifferent.
The judge said they had “committed an act of hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious disrespect for society.” She rejected their argument that they had no intention of offending Russian Orthodox believers.
CHURCH CALLS FOR MERCY
Putin, who returned to the presidency for a third term in May after a four-year spell as prime minister, had said the women did “nothing good” but should not be judged too harshly.
The trio’s defense lawyers said they would appeal. The Church issued a statement condemning the women’s actions as a deliberate insult to millions of people but urged the state authorities to show mercy “within the framework of the law”.
That appeared to signal that the Church would back a pardon or reduced sentence, although the women would be expected to admit guilt if they sought a pardon.
The charges against Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich raised concern abroad about freedom of speech in Russia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement that Washington was concerned about the “disproportionate sentences … and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia,” and urged Russian authorities “to review this case”.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the sentence put “a serious question mark over Russia’s respect for international obligations of fair, transparent, and independent legal process.”
In the Ukrainian capital Kiev, a bare-chested feminist activist took a chainsaw to a wooden cross bearing a figure of Christ, while in Bulgaria, other sympathizers put Pussy Riot-style masks on statues at a Soviet Army monument.
Opposition leaders say Putin will not ease up on opponents in his new term which could extend his rule of Russia to 18 years. Parliament has already rushed through laws increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls on the Internet, and imposing stricter rules on defamation.
In Moscow, gay rights suffered a blow when an appeals court upheld a ruling that city authorities had acted legally in rejecting applications from activists to hold a gay rights march every year for the next 100 years.