MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian judges who ruled to keep two of the three Pussy Riot band members behind bars took the unusual step of publicly defending their decision, saying Thursday that it was made independently and without pressure.
A panel of three judges at the Moscow City Court on Wednesday upheld a lower court ruling to send Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina to prison for two years, but they released Yekaterina Samutsevich after giving her a suspended sentence.
Pussy Riot staged an impromptu punk performance at Moscow's main cathedral in February in protest against President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy for openly supporting his rule. The three women were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, but they insist that their protest was political in nature and not an attack on religion.
The case has caused controversy in Russia and been widely condemned in the West, which may have prompted the judges to speak out.
The presiding judge said the appeals court deemed it necessary for Tolokonnikova and Alekhina to remain incarcerated.
"The court has considered all the circumstances of the case and the level of danger to society and ruled that their correction is possible only in isolation from society," Larisa Polyakova said.
She said the fact that the women both have a small child was taken into account at the lower court, which handed down two-year sentences on a charge that carries a maximum punishment of seven years in prison.
Polyakova said the leniency for Samutsevich reflected "her degree of participation" in the crime.
Samutsevich's lawyer made the case at the appeals hearing that her client should be treated differently because she had been nabbed by security guards and taken out of the cathedral before she was able to join other band members in the performance.
The Pussy Riot trial has become a symbol of Putin's crackdown on dissent since returning to the presidency in May after four years as prime minister. Just days before the appeals hearing, Putin said he thought the lower court had been right to hand down a two-year prison term, a statement that defense lawyers said would put pressure on the court.
Polyakova insisted that the judges were not influenced by Putin's statements and made the decision "that we thought was necessary."
"There has never been any pressure on us in this case," she said.