Free-speech advocates worldwide protest Russian punk band's sentence

Pussy Riot supporters protest in Munich
From Paris to Hollywood, free-speech advocates reacted with outrage Friday at the two-year prison sentences handed down by a Moscow court against the feminist punk-rock trio Pussy Riot for a protest stunt in a Moscow cathedral against Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The three young women have already been jailed for five months for the "punk prayer" performed at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February that the government has treated as a criminal act rather than the statement of political opposition the rockers say they were making.

"I am concerned about the effect that the penalty on the three female musicians will have on the development and freedom of Russian civil society,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin. “Engaged citizens and artists and their freedom of expression should be part of any lively democratic society, including Russia.”

PHOTOS: Russian punk band members sentenced to 2 years in prison

Amnesty International, which had appealed for the women's release as part of a worldwide outcry against the Putin regime's harsh reaction, called Friday's guilty verdict "a bitter blow" for freedom of expression in today's Russia.

The conviction of the musicians on hooliganism charges inspired protests and solidarity rallies in about two dozen cities around the world, and fueled fresh demonstrations in Moscow. Hundreds turned out at Igor Stravinsky Square in central Paris to hail the women as martyrs to the cause of freedom. Smaller crowds rallied in Kiev, Ukraine; Barcelona, Spain; Berlin, Belgrade, Serbia; London; and Washington, D.C.

Supporters of the jailed trio pulled the band's signature knit ski masks over the heads of statues in the Moscow Metro, as did demonstrators in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Leading opposition figures, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, were detained outside the Moscow courtroom where the verdict was handed down.

Even Russia's Orthodox Church, on whose behalf authorities accused the provocative rockers of insulting religious believers, was appealing for clemency for the women, the RIA Novosti news agency reported, citing a statement issued by the church hierarchy.

"We ask the authorities to show mercy to the convicts, hoping that they will not repeat their blasphemous actions,” the Supreme Council of the Russian Orthodox Church was quoted as saying in the statement.

Putin and the Russian justice system have come in for harsh criticism from human rights groups and leading artists for what has been seen as an attempt to use the courts to punish critics. Paul McCartney on Thursday joined the chorus of famous musicians calling on the Kremlin to free the women and respect Russians' right to speak their minds. Madonna, Sting, Bjork, Pete Townsend, the Pet Shop Boys and other artists had earlier appealed on behalf of the rockers.

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--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: A masked activist of Amnesty International shouts slogans at a rally in Munich, Germany, on Friday in protest of the prison sentences handed down by a Moscow court to three Russian women of the Pussy Riot punk rock band for singing a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin. Credit: Lennart Preiss/Associated Press

 
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