* Ombudsman says he could challenge sentence after appeal
* Says case is igniting tension in Russia
By Gabriela Baczynska
MOSCOW, Aug 23 Russia's human rights ombudsman
on Thursday called the prison sentences handed down to three
women from punk band Pussy Riot "excessive" and warned that the
case was igniting dangerous tensions within society.
The trio were convicted of hooliganism motivated by
religious hatred by a Moscow court on Aug. 17 after belting out
a profanity-laced anti-Putin song on the altar of Moscow's main
cathedral in February
Vladimir Lukin, who was originally nominated for his
advisory role by President Vladimir Putin, said he might
challenge the sentencing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria
Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich if their jail terms were
upheld on appeal.
"It is a misdemeanour that in a normal, civilised European
state is handled in administrative rather than criminal
proceedings. That's why I think the ruling on those women is
excessive," he told a news conference when asked about the case.
Western governments and singers have condemned the sentences
as disproportionate and the case has become a cause celebre in
Western media where most commentators have echoed the Russian
opposition's charge that the verdict was part of a crackdown on
dissent by Putin.
However, the Kremlin has denounced foreign criticism as
politically-motivated. Many Russian Orthodox
believers have also said they were offended by the protest, part
of a wave of demonstrations against Putin ahead of his
re-election to the presidency in March for a third term.
The women said they meant no offence and were protesting
against close ties between the state and the dominant Russian
Orthodox Church, whose leader likened Putin's years at the helm
to a "miracle of God" a few weeks before the Pussy Riot protest.
"POISONOUS SUBSTANCE OF INTOLERANCE"
Lukin, a former liberal lawmaker and ambassador to the
United States, said the women's stunt was not a crime but a
"quite serious misdemeanour".
He said he hoped an appeals court would "more carefully
consider all the aspects of this case" and that as ombudsman he
had the right to challenge the verdict once it entered into
force if he believed human rights had been violated.
"If the sentence remains the same ... I will analyse this
thoroughly," he said.
Lawyers for the women have said they expect to file an
appeal next week.
His intervention in the debate came as The Nobel Peace
Center, an arm of the Nobel Foundation, extended an invitation
to members of Pussy Riot and their spouses to attend the Oslo
World Music Festival in October, a symbolic gesture it said was
meant to highlight Russia's poor human rights record.
The invitation was issued in conjunction with Amnesty
International and the festival's organisers.
Lukin suggested the Pussy Riot case, which has inflamed
emotions among both liberal and conservative Russians, was
widening dangerous rifts in a society that has endured repeated
upheaval over the past century.
"It is regrettable that a poisonous substance of intolerance
and brutality is spreading in our society. Recently it has
become typical and even fashionable not to discuss problems but
to lash about at one another," Lukin said.
"The instinct for dialogue is fading and the fighting
instinct is coming into the foreground. This is very dangerous."