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Anti-Putin Pussy Riot band members jailed for 2 years

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Three members of the Russian all-girl punk group Pussy Riot have each been sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for their performance inside a Moscow cathedral that criticized President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The trial inspired a wave of small but raucous protests across Europe and North America in support of the feminist rockers, who have been dubbed prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Hundreds of Pussy Riot supporters waiting outside the Moscow courtroom chanted "down with the police state" when the sentence was announced. Dozens were detained, including several opposition leaders.

The three women were arrested in March after a guerrilla performance in Moscow's main cathedral where they high-kicked and danced while singing a "punk prayer" pleading with the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Vladimir Putin, who would be elected to a third term as Russia's president two weeks later.

Judge Marina Syrova said in her verdict that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, "committed hooliganism driven by religious hatred." She rejected the women's arguments that they were protesting the Orthodox Church's support for Putin and didn't intend to offend religious believers.

The church had called for a tough sentence. However, the BBC reported a church spokesman had asked the court to show mercy on the women, but only after the sentence in a Siberian prison had been brought down.

No comment from Putin

Putin himself had said the band members shouldn't be judged too harshly. However, this would have left the impression that Putin had bowed to public pressure, something he has resisted throughout his 12 years in power. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin couldn't intervene in the judicial process and refused to comment on the sentence.

"Putin has doomed himself to another year and a half of international shame and humiliation," said Boris Akunin, one of Russia's most popular authors, who was among the Pussy Riot supporters outside the courthouse. "The whole thing is bad because it's yet another step toward the escalation of tensions within society. And the government is absolutely to blame."

Defence lawyers said they would appeal the verdict, although they had little hope that it would be overturned. "Under no circumstances will the girls ask for a pardon [from Putin]," said Mark Feygin. "They will not beg and humiliate themselves before such a bastard."

The three women stood in handcuffs in a glass cage in the courtroom for three hours as the judge read the verdict. They smiled sadly as the judge recounted testimony of prosecution witnesses accusing them of sacrilege and "devilish dances" in church and said that their feminist views made them hate the Orthodox religion.

Tolokonnikova laughed out loud when the judge read the testimony of a psychologist who said that her "active stance on social issues" was an anomaly.

The three women remained calm and kept smiling after the judge announced the sentence. Someone in the courtroom shouted "Shame!" They waved at relatives from behind the glass

- RELATED: Should Canada intervene in the Pussy Riot case?

"It looks like [Putin] feels personally humiliated and personally involved and the rumour is that it was his personal order to put them in jail," said Nikolay Petrov, a former Soviet government analyst in the 1990s who is now chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Society and Regions Program. "There's only one and the same branch of power in Russia, it's executive power led by Putin."

Prosecutors had sought a three-year prison term, and the women faced a maximum of seven years behind bars.

There is an apparent Canadian link to the group. Band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, a Russian-Canadian, has told CBC News his wife holds permanent resident status in Canada and has an Ontario health card.

However, her status in Canada is not clear. A photo of a permanent residency card with Tolokonnikova's name on it has been posted on the internet, but in a video that is also online, she says she has only a visa to Canada.

High-profile attention

Outside the court, Russian police detained several protesters, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, and opposition group leader Sergei Udaltsov. Facing a strong police presence, hundreds of the band's supporters filled a side street near the court, chanting "Russia without Putin."

Amnesty International called the verdict "a bitter blow for freedom of expression" in Russia, adding it believes the decision was politically motivated.

"The Russian authorities should overturn the court ruling and release the members of Pussy Riot immediately and unconditionally," said John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Programme.

"What Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich did was calculated to shock — and did shock many. But in sentencing them to two years’ imprisonment, Russia has set the limits of freedom of expression in the wrong place."

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow tweeted that the sentence appeared to be "disproportionate to the actions."

Rick Roth, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said Canada "believes strongly in the rule of law, administered independently and without political bias or motivation."

"The promotion of Canadian values, including freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, features prominently in our ongoing dialogue with the Russian authorities," Roth said.

The trial of the band members has made them an international cause célèbre. They have received public support from musicians such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul McCartney and Madonna.

Geddy Lee, frontman of Canadian rock band Rush, called the verdict a "shocking abuse of power" and a "Neanderthal overreaction to a fairly harmless prank."

"Clearly artistic freedom has no place in modern-day Russia," he wrote in an email to Evan Solomon, host of CBC's Power & Politics.

Canadian artist Peaches, who is based in Berlin, has gathered 85,000 signatures on a petition in just five days in support of Pussy Riot on the social action website Change.org. The singer also created a Free Pussy Riot video featuring supporters in masks.

Gorbachev joins critics

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told the BBC's Russian Service on Thursday that the case should never have gone to trial, labelling it "a completely pointless undertaking."

Activists in cities around the world, including Berlin, Paris, Helsinki, Sofia and Tel Aviv, staged protests that began an hour before the verdict was handed down.

In Kyiv, a topless woman cut down a Christian cross with a chainsaw in a show of support for the band members. Reuters reported that Inna Shevchenko, a member of a women's rights group, cut down the cross, which was erected on a hill overlooking the city centre to commemorate victims of Stalinist repression and the famine of the 1930s.

In downtown Toronto, about 100 protesters gathered outside the Russian consulate to protest the verdict.