MOSCOW — A Moscow appeals court on Wednesday unexpectedly freed one of the jailed Pussy Riot members, but upheld the two-year prison sentence for the two others jailed for an irreverent protest against President Vladimir Putin.
All three women were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They argued in court on Wednesday that their impromptu performance inside Moscow's main cathedral in February was political in nature and not an attack on religion.
The Moscow City Court ruled that Yekaterina Samutsevich's sentence should be suspended because she was thrown out of the cathedral by guards before she could remove her guitar from its case and take part in the performance.
"The punishment for an incomplete crime is much lighter than for a completed one," said Samutsevich's lawyer, Irina Khrunova. "She did not participate in the actions the court found constituted hooliganism."
Dressed in neon-colored miniskirts and tights, with homemade balaclavas on their heads, the women performed a "punk prayer" asking Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin as he headed into a March election that would hand him a third term.
"If we unintentionally offended any believers with our actions, we express our apologies," said Samutsevich, who along with Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova spoke in court from inside a glass cage known colloquially as the "aquarium."
"The idea of the protest was political, not religious," she said. "In this and in previous protests we acted against the current government of the president, and against the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution of the Russian government, against the political comments of the Russian patriarch. Exactly because of this I don't consider that I committed a crime."
The case has been condemned in the U.S. and Europe, where it has been seen as an illustration of Putin's intensifying crackdown on dissent after his return to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
Putin, however, recently said two-year sentence was justified because "It is impermissible to undermine our moral foundations, moral values, to try to destroy the country."
The appeal was postponed from Oct. 1 after Samutsevich fired her lawyers. Prosecutors criticized the move as a delaying tactic.
Her father, Stanislav Samutsevich, attributed his daughter's release mostly to the change in lawyers. He said he was deeply sorry for the two others, who are expected to be sent to a prison colony to serve out their sentences.
Defense lawyers said Putin's remarks amounted to pressure on the appeals court. "I want a ruling on President Putin on the inadmissibility of his meddling in a court decision," defense lawyer Mark Feigin said.
The Russian Orthodox Church had said the appeals court should show leniency if the three women repented. But the defendants said Wednesday that they could not repent because they harbored no religious hatred and had committed no crime. Their protest, they said, was against Putin and the church hierarchy for openly supporting his rule.
Patriarch Kirill has expressed strong support for Putin, praising his leadership as "God's miracle." He described the punk performance as part of an assault by "enemy forces" on the church.
The judge repeatedly interrupted the defendants when their statements turned to politics, but they persisted in speaking their minds.
"We will not be silent. And even if we are in Mordovia or Siberia (where prisoners in Russia are often sent to serve out their terms) we won't be silent," Alekhina said.
A lawyer representing cathedral staff, Alexei Taratukhin, said the verdict should be upheld because the women's actions "had nothing to do with politics, democracy or freedom."
Tolokonnikova appealed to Russians for understanding.
"I don't consider myself guilty. But again I ask all those who are listening to me for the last time: I don't want people to be angry at me: Yes, I'm going to prison, but I don't want anyone to think that there is any hatred in me."
Defense lawyers asked the court to take into consideration that Tolokonnikova and Alekhin both have a young child.
The Moscow City Court began Wednesday's hearing by dismissing two defense motions, including one to call more witnesses to the performance inside Christ the Savior Cathedral.
Mansur Mirovalev and Lynn Berry contributed to this report.