10.10.12

Russian Court Frees Member of Pussy Riot

An appellate court in Moscow released a member of the anti-Putin punk band, but upheld prison sentences for two others on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

Months after being arrested for her role in a controversial song performed in Russia’s main orthodox church, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, a member of the punk band Pussy Riot, was freed on Wednesday, after a Moscow appellate court changed her sentence from two years in prison to two years probation. Yet the court upheld the sentences for two of her fellow band members, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, who both have young children.

In February, the band donned short dresses and bright balaclavas and sang a “punk prayer” denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin at Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior. Almost immediately, the three were arrested on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

It remains a mystery why the court suddenly decided to release Samutsevich on Wednesday, but chose to keep her fellow band members behind bars. In previous hearings, there was considerable evidence that Samutsevich neither sang nor danced by the altar. She barely managed to get her guitar out of its case before being nabbed by a security guard. Samutsevich is not even seen in the video of the incident, which has created a sensation online. Anna Usacheva, the court’s press secretary, issued only a brief explanation following the decision: “The court made a conclusion that the correction of Samutsevich would be possible without her isolation from society.”

In a heated hearing on Wednesday, Samutsevich apologized to believers and insisted that she did not consider the performance at the church a crime. Ten days prior, she changed her lawyer, saying the original defender “had let her down.”

Samutsevich’s band members were not so apologetic. The judge had demanded that the group keep to the subject of the case, but Pussy Riot’s leader, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, said that the verdict against her was blatantly political. “I am going away now for a year and a half but the country will suffer a civil war,” she said.

In a heated hearing on Wednesday, Samutsevich apologized to believers and insisted that she did not consider the performance at the church a crime.

The court’s verdict came as a surprise to many on Wednesday, and supporters instantly celebrated online. “Katia is free!” one wrote on Facebook, referring to Samutsevich’s nickname. “Time to drink,” wrote another.

Last week, in a documentary released on state television, commemorating Putin’s 60th birthday, the Russian president praised the court’s original decision, a sign, many assumed, that the appeal would be fruitless. “Court decisions of political cases are made by the administration,” said Zoya Svetova, a prominent human-rights activist.

Before their church performance, Pussy Riot was virtually unknown—both inside Russia and on the international stage. Yet the government’s response to the incident—widely seen as heavy-handed—came after a wave of protests against President Vladimir Putin, who formally returned to power in March. Since their arrest, the band has attracted popular supporters such as Madonna, Yoko Ono, and Paul McCartney. And after their initial guilty verdict in August, protesters took to the streets in Moscow, while colorful balaclavas began appearing on monuments throughout the city.

Despite Samutsevich’s release, critics continue to point to the judge’s decision on the other two band members as a miscarriage of justice. “The country is falling apart,” said Gennady Gudkov, a member of the opposition, who was recently expelled from Parliament. “But the system continues to go after young mothers. Instead, the Kremlin, which has been behind every decision in the Pussy Riot case, should punish those who kept…Samutsevich in jail for half a year.”