* Band's jail sentences sparked outcry in the West
* Russia says criticism was politically-motivated
* First appeals hearing due to be heard on Oct. 1
By Gleb Bryanski and Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, Sept 12 Russian Prime Minister Dmitry
Medvedev said on Wednesday he thought three Pussy Riot punk band
members should be freed from prison following their conviction
last month for a profanity-laced protest against Vladimir Putin
in a Moscow cathedral.
Western governments and singers such as Madonna condemned
their two-year jail terms as excessive and their lawyer Nikolai
Polozov said Medvedev's comments indicated the government was
concerned about the level of criticism it has faced.
"A suspended sentence, taking into account time they have
already spent (in jail), would be entirely sufficient," Medvedev
said in televised remarks.
The comments by Medvedev, who was president for four years
until May, appeared designed to disassociate him from the jail
terms, which were also condemned by domestic rights groups,
liberal Russians and opponents of President Putin.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina
Samutsevich were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious
hatred on Aug. 17 after belting out a song criticising Putin,
then prime minister, in Moscow's main cathedral in February.
They have been in jail since March and their appeal against
the verdict and two-year jail terms is due to start on Oct. 1.
A lawyer for the jailed women, Nikolai Polozov, welcomed
Medvedev's comments: "We see that the rhetoric is changing. The
authorities, in the form of Dmitry Medvedev, have realised that
this story has gone way too far."
Medvedev spoke at a meeting in the city of Penza, southeast
of Moscow, with members of the ruling United Russia party, whose
chairmanship he inherited from Putin in May.
He said many Russians had found the Pussy Riot protest
offensive and emphasised he was expressing his personal view
only and was not seeking to influence the case.
A survey conducted by Russian polling agency, the Public
Opinion Foundation after the verdict found that 53 percent of
Russians believed the two-year sentences were fair and 27
percent said they were unjust.
Putin steered Medvedev into the presidency when he faced a
constitutional bar on a third straight term in 2008, but was
seen as calling the shots as prime minister. He returned to the
Kremlin after winning an election in March.
Analysts say that, unlike Putin, Medvedev has little power
to intervene in the case even if he wanted to. They say his
position as prime minister is precarious and that he would be a
likely scapegoat should Russia's economy deteriorate.
Another member of the defence team, Mark Feigin, doubted
Medvedev's statement would lead to shorter sentences for the
band members as "because Medvedev does not have the authority.
He's not a politically influential figure in Russia's
"Medvedev's words do not have decisive significance," added
analyst Yevgeny Volk. But he said that they "reflected the mood
of the liberal part of society."
The band members had faced up to seven years in prison, but
Putin said during the trial that they should not be judged "so
harshly" and prosecutors subsequently sought three-year terms.
Putin last week declined to comment on the sentences, but
suggested the band had forced its "indecent" name into public
discourse and that the state had a duty to protect the feelings
of believers after abuses during the Soviet era.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has cast the Pussy Riot
protest as a part of a concerted attack on the church and on
Russian society itself, though the church has also urged the
state to show mercy.