MOSCOW — One jailed member of the punk band Pussy Riot unexpectedly walked free from a Moscow courtroom, but the other two now head toward a harsh punishment for their irreverent protest against President Vladimir Putin: a penal colony.
The split ruling by the appeals court Wednesday added further controversy to a case that has been seized upon in the West as a symbol of Putin's intensifying crackdown on dissent.
All three women were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison. 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 thus did not take part in the performance.
If the Kremlin's plan was to create a rift in the trio by letting just one band member go, it didn't seem to work.
The two other defendants squealed with joy and hugged Samutsevich before she was led from the courtroom to be mobbed by friends and journalists waiting outside on the street.
Dressed in neon-colored dresses and tights, with homemade balaclavas on their heads, the band members performed a "punk prayer" asking the 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 Wednesday from inside a glass cage known colloquially as the "aquarium."
Both the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church would like to see an end to a case that has caused international outrage, but they would hate to be seen as caving to pressure. As much as anything, the release of Samutsevich is viewed as a reward for her decision this month to drop defense lawyers who had antagonized the Kremlin with their politicized statements.
"The idea of the protest was political, not religious," Samutsevich 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."
Rights groups were frustrated by the appeals court decision.
"To see these two women sent to a Russian penal colony for the crime of singing a song undercuts any claim that Putin and the Russian government have to democracy and freedom of expression," Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Washington.
"It's a very cold climate for human rights in Russia right now," Nossel said.
Putin recently said the two-year sentences were justified because "it is impermissible to undermine our moral foundations, moral values, to try to destroy the country." Defense lawyers said his remarks amounted to pressure on the appeals court.
The appeal was postponed from Oct. 1 after Samutsevich fired her lawyers, a move prosecutors criticized at the time as a delaying tactic. Her father said the appointment of the new lawyer was decisive in securing the suspended sentence.
"This is a great happiness to me," Stanislav Samutsevich said. "But I feel sorry for other girls. They did not deserve such cruel punishment."
His daughter, a computer programmer and artist, said she would campaign for the release of the other Pussy Riot members.
"Of course, I will, naturally. They are my friends and companions in arms," Samutsevich, who at 30 is the oldest of the three, told journalists outside the courtroom. "As to the decision, I don't know why, you need to ask the court. I think this was thanks to the defense's ironclad arguments."
Her new lawyer, Irina Khrunova, said the reason for Samutsevich's release was clear: "She did not participate in the actions the court found constituted hooliganism."
Members of the original defense team, who have been outspoken in their fierce criticism of the Kremlin, said they suspected political maneuverings. "We are dealing with a political game that could be about splitting Pussy Riot," defense lawyer Mark Feygin said.
Pavel Chikov, who like Khrunova is a member of an association of lawyers known for their work on rights cases, said the defense appeared to have two choices — either create a scandal and accept a harsh verdict, or work for the lightest punishment. "The girls chose the former," he wrote on Twitter.
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 (regions where prisoners in Russia are often sent to serve out their terms) we won't be silent," Alekhina said.
Defense attorney Nikolai Polozov said the two women would receive copies of their sentences within two weeks and then transported to a penal colony; the location was as yet unknown. Once convicted, all Russian prisoners serve time in penal colonies.
A lawyer representing cathedral staff, Alexei Taratukhin, urged the court to uphold the verdict because the women's actions "had nothing to do with politics, democracy or freedom."
Five members of Pussy Riot entered the vast and nearly empty Christ the Savior Cathedral on Feb. 21. After Samutsevich and her guitar were bundled out, only four of them were left to dance on the pulpit and shout out the words to their song before they too were ousted by security guards.
The band members were wearing their trademark balaclavas, which may have made it more difficult for police to identify them. The three women were arrested in March, and the group said the two others have since fled the country.Comment on this story
Pussy Riot later produced a video that included footage of a previous performance in a smaller church and had a dubbed soundtrack. This video, which became an Internet hit, was what most angered Russian Orthodox believers.
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."
The court refused the defense lawyers' request to take into consideration that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina both have a young child.
Mansur Mirovalev, Max Seddon and Lynn Berry contributed to this report.