* Two-year jail term for three women condemned abroad
* Opposition says Putin behind sentence, sends tough message
* Church condemns blasphemy but calls for mercy
By Timothy Heritage and Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW, Aug 17 Three women from the Russian punk
band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail on Friday
for staging a protest against President Vladimir Putin in a
church, a ruling supporters described as his "personal revenge".
The group's backers burst into chants of "Shame" outside the
Moscow courthouse and said the case showed Putin was cracking
down on dissent in his new six-year term as president. Dozens
were detained by police when scuffles broke out.
The United States and the European Union condemned the
sentence as disproportionate and asked for it to be reviewed,
although state prosecutors had demanded a three-year jail term
and the maximum sentence possible was seven years.
But while the women have support abroad, where their case
has been taken up by a long list of celebrities including
Madonna, Paul McCartney and Sting, opinion polls show few
Russians sympathise with them.
"The girls' actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke
the church's rules," Judge Marina Syrova told the court as she
spent three hours reading the verdict while the women stood
watching in handcuffs inside a glass courtroom cage.
She declared all three guilty of hooliganism motivated by
religious hatred, saying they had deliberately offended Russian
Orthodox believers by storming the altar of Moscow's main
cathedral in February to belt out a "punk prayer" deriding
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alyokhina, 24, and
Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, giggled as the judge read out the
sentences one by one, but portrayed themselves as victims of
Soviet-style persecution during the trial that began on July 30.
They have already been in jail for about five months,
meaning they will serve another 19, and could be released if
Putin were to pardon them. The Orthodox Church hinted it would
not oppose such a move by appealing, belatedly, for mercy.
Pussy Riot took on two powerful state institutions at once
when they burst into Moscow's golden-domed Christ the Saviour
Cathedral wearing bright ski masks, tights and short skirts to
protest against Putin's close ties with the Church.
The judge said the three women had "committed an act of
hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious
disrespect for society." She rejected their argument that they
had no intention of offending Russian Orthodox believers.
It became one of Russia's most high-profile trials since
the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Putin's critics said it
put the 59-year-old Kremlin leader's policies in the dock.
Opponents depicted it as part of a crackdown by the ex-KGB
spy against a protest movement that took off over the winter,
attracting what witnesses said were crowds of up to 100,000
people in Moscow to oppose his return to power.
"They are in jail because it is Putin's personal revenge,"
Alexei Navalny, one of the organisers of the protests, said
outside the court. "This verdict was written by Vladimir Putin."
A police source told Itar-Tass news agency 50 people had
been detained near the court when scuffles broke out. Among them
were Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist opposition leader, and Garry
Kasparov, a Putin critic and former world chess champion.
But there was no sign of the opposition taking to the
streets in anger. Opposition leaders plan a small gathering in
Moscow on Sunday, the anniversary of a failed coup shortly
before the Soviet Union fell in 1991, but the next big
anti-Putin rally is not planned until Sept. 15.
Putin's spokesman did not immediately comment on the verdict
but the president's supporters said before the trial that he
would have no influence on the court's decision.
Although Pussy Riot have never made a record or had a hit
song, foreign singers have led the campaign for the trio's
release. Madonna performed in Moscow with "PUSSY RIOT" painted
on her back and wearing a ski mask in solidarity.
But a poll of Russians released by the independent Levada
research group showed only 6 percent sympathised with the women
and 51 percent found nothing good about them or felt irritation
or hostility. The rest could not say or were indifferent.
Valentina Ivanova, 60, a retired doctor, said outside the
courtroom: "What they did showed disrespect towards everything,
and towards believers first of all."
CHURCH CALLS FOR MERCY
Putin, who returned to the presidency for a third term on
May 7 after a four-year spell as prime minister, had said the
women did "nothing good" but should not be judged too harshly.
The trio's defence lawyers said they would appeal. The
Church issued a statement condemning the women's actions but
urged the state to show mercy "within the framework of the law".
That appeared to signal that the Church would back a pardon
or reduced sentence, although the women would be expected to
admit guilt if they sought a pardon.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said
Washington was concerned about the "disproportionate sentences
... and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia",
and urged Russian authorities "to review this case".
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the sentence
called into question Russia's respect for the "obligations of
fair, transparent, and independent legal process".
In protests outside Russia in support of Pussy Riot, a
bare-chested feminist activist took a chainsaw to a wooden cross
bearing a figure of Christ in Kiev. In Bulgaria, sympathisers
put Pussy Riot-style masks on statues at a Soviet Army monument.
Opposition leaders say Putin will not ease up on opponents
in his new term. Parliament has already rushed through laws
increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls on the
Internet, and imposing stricter rules on defamation.
Gay rights suffered a blow in Moscow when an appeals court
upheld a ruling rejecting applications from activists to hold a
gay rights march each year for the next 100 years. Anti-gay
activists later sued Madonna for $10 million in St Petersburg,
saying she insulted their feelings by speaking out for gay
rights there last week.