A Moscow court freed Pussy Riot member Ekaterina Samutsevich at an appeal hearing on Wednesday, but ruled that two other women in the anti-Putin punk group must serve out their two-year sentences.
“I’m very happy and now I just want to recover,” Samutsevich, 30, said as she stood in the driving rain outside the east Moscow courtroom.
Samutsevich walked out of the court to freedom and a media scrum after serving almost seven months in a pre-trial detention centre over an unsanctioned performance in Moscow’s largest cathedral.
“I didn’t expect this at all,” her elderly father, Stanislav, told RIA Novosti after the decision. “But it’s a real shame they didn’t all get released.”
Samutsevich's new lawyer, Irina Khrunova, had maintained her client had been stopped by security guards before she could take part in the group’s “punk prayer” at the Christ the Savior Cathedral.
The two other group members detained after the February 21 performance, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, are now set to be transferred to a penal colony hundreds of miles from Moscow. Their request to be allowed to serve out their sentence in a Moscow detention facility was rejected on Wednesday.
"We are glad that Ekaterina Samutsevich has been freed, but we fail to see how her role significantly differed from those of the others," lawyer Mark Feygin said after the ruling.
Feygin also said the group would lodge an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights.
Another lawyer for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina - Nikolai Polozov - expressed surprise that the court had not also freed his clients, both of whom have small children.
There was heavy security for Wednesday’s appeal, which was the concluding installment in a legal saga that has highlighted what critics call the Kremlin’s heavy-handed crackdown on dissent.
The three women were jailed for two years on August 17, after a court found them guilty of “hooliganism with the aim of inciting religious hatred” in a decision that sparked worldwide protests and drew sharp international criticism.
Lawyers for the group on Wednesday again rejected the argument that the group’s 40-second performance of a song entitled “Holy S**t” was anti-religion, saying it was a protest against the Orthodox Church’s support for Vladimir Putin ahead of the presidential elections on March 4.
“We are in prison for our political beliefs,” Alyokhina said during the proceedings. “But even if we are sent to a penal colony, we will not stay silent.”
The Orthodox Church demanded “genuine repentance” for the performance, and the Orthodox Church’s de facto spokesman on the case, Vsevolod Chaplin, told RIA Novosti that without repentance, there could be no forgiveness, and to suggest otherwise was an anti-Christian idea.
Tolokonnikova warned that Putin’s rule would “lead to civil war,” before she was silenced by the judge.
A poll released by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Center indicated last week that 43 percent of Russians considered a two-year sentence too light. Levada quizzed 1,601 people across Russia and the poll had a maximum margin of error of 3.4 percent.
Prosecuting lawyer Lev Lyapin rejected Pussy Riot’s allegations that the current warm ties between the Kremlin and the influential Orthodox Church threatened the constitutional separation of church and state. “The majority of Jews support Putin,” he said.
Putin said in an interview aired at the weekend on state TV that Pussy Riot had “got what they asked for” and that the two-year sentences handed down to the group members were justified.
Lawyers for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina said on Wednesday that Putin’s statement amounted to unconstitutional interference in the case and called for their clients to be freed.
“Why can’t Putin give his opinion?” responded prosecuting lawyer Lev Lyapin.
Opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny said after these three members of Pussy Riot were jailed in August that Putin “wrote the verdict.”
But the president denied any personal involvement. “I have nothing to do with it,” he said in Sunday’s NTV documentary.