Skip to main content

Band member's husband condemns Pussy Riot prison sentences

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
August 18, 2012 -- Updated 1521 GMT (2321 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pyotr Verzilov says no other Western nation would have jailed his wife for the protest act
  • The White House has serious concerns about the women's treatment, a spokesmen says
  • The three members of Pussy Riot got a two-year prison term for hooliganism
  • They were arrested after performing an anti-Putin song in a cathedral as a protest act

(CNN) -- The husband of one of the members of Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot imprisoned for hooliganism in Moscow is leading a chorus of condemnation after a conviction decried as an attack on free speech.

Three young women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were sentenced to two years in prison Friday after being convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

They were arrested after performing a song critical of President Vladimir Putin in one of the Russian Orthodox Church's most important cathedrals in February, a flash mob-style act that outraged many of the country's faithful.

Pussy Riot supporters vent anger at Twitter

Footage of the brief but provocative protest action, in which the band members clad in balaclavas screamed "Mother Mary, please drive Putin away," inside Christ Savior Cathedral attracted wide attention after it was posted online.

The sentence handed down to the trio was widely condemned by rights groups and senior international figures as disproportionate, although polling suggests many in Russia believe they had a fair trial.

Pyotr Verzilov, husband of Tolokonnikova, told CNN's Connect the World that legal experts had assured him while the women might have been arrested for their action elsewhere in the world, they would not have gone to prison for it.

"This would never happen in any Western country, it's just not possible," he said.

Pussy Riot band members Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow on Friday August 17. Pussy Riot band members Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow on Friday August 17.
Women in waiting
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
Show of support for Pussy Riot Show of support for Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot members found guilty
Star support for Russian punk band

Verzilov said the authorities had crossed "a certain line" in arresting the women for a nonviolent protest act -- and that this was the reason for the international outcry over the case, with celebrities including Madonna backing their cause.

"Everyone was amazed that Putin decided to give this brutal sentence to girls for singing a protest song inside a church -- no one was expecting that," he said.

He said there had been no time to say goodbye as his wife -- who is also mother to their young child -- was taken from the courtroom to start her prison term.

Pussy Riot and Russia's surreal 'justice'

"Right after the girls heard the verdict, we only had a couple of glances, for five seconds, and that was it. She was led away by all these numerous guards in the court room and we couldn't speak to each other," he said.

Verzilov's criticisms echo international concern that the sentence, although handed down by a court, may have been politically motivated and reflects a recent crackdown on free speech by Russia's authorities.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest also said the United States was "disappointed" by the verdict and sentence.

"While we understand the group's behavior was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way that these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system," he said.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the court's decision as "deeply troubling."

"Together with the reports of the band members' mistreatment during their pre-trial detention and the reported irregularities of the trial, it puts a serious question mark over Russia's respect for international obligations of fair, transparent and independent legal process," she said. "It also runs counter to Russia's international obligations as regards to respect for freedom of expression."

Urging Russia to reverse the sentence, Ashton said the case "adds to the recent upsurge in politically motivated intimidation and prosecution of opposition activists in the Russian Federation, a trend that is of growing concern to the European Union."

Rights group Amnesty International said that the court's decision was "a bitter blow for freedom of expression in the country" and that the women were now "prisoners of conscience."

Amnesty believes that the women's conduct "was politically motivated, and that they were wrongfully prosecuted for what was a legitimate -- if potentially offensive -- protest action," it said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch also said the women should never have been prosecuted for a hate crime.

Inside the courtroom, Judge Marina Sirovaya found the three Pussy Riot members guilty of offending the churchgoers present -- through their actions, obscene language and their clothing -- and showing a lack of respect for the rules of the Orthodox Church.

Polling by the Levada Center indicates that many people within Russia support the legal proceedings against the three women.

Its poll, conducted before the sentence was handed down, found that 44% of people surveyed thought the trial was fair, while 17% thought it wasn't fair and 39% said they didn't know.

Verzilov said the survey's findings reflect the dominance of state media, particularly in areas of Russia where access to the Internet is limited.

This made it easy to turn people against the band by portraying it as anti-Orthodox Christian, anti-Russian values and revolutionary, he said.

Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich have spent five months in pre-trial detention, which counts toward their two-year term.

They are expected to appeal the court's decision -- but Verzilov said he did not think they would request a presidential pardon.

"My wife has already answered this question -- 'it's not us who should be asking Putin for pardon, it's Putin who should be asking for a pardon from us and the whole country,'" he cites her as saying.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Pussy Riot trial
August 17, 2012 -- Updated 2046 GMT (0446 HKT)
A judge blasts three members of Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot for performing a song critical of Vladimir Putin in a Moscow church.
August 17, 2012 -- Updated 2007 GMT (0407 HKT)
Demonstrators wear Pussy Riot-style masks outside a Moscow court in July. Singer Madonna also donned one of the masks during a recent gig in the city, telling the audience:
Rachel Denbar of Human Rights Watch says the Pussy case casts a "highly disturbing' light on freedom of expression in post-Soviet Russia.
August 18, 2012 -- Updated 0747 GMT (1547 HKT)
The Twittersphere lit up with pictures and messages of support from around the world after three band members were jailed for "hooliganism."
August 11, 2012 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Tents, food trucks, art work and posters with "Free Pussy Riot" covered bus stops and real estate board during a concert in D.C. in support of the arrested Russian band.
August 8, 2012 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
Security's stepped up around Madonna's Moscow concert after the singer voices her support for the members of Pussy Riot.
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1240 GMT (2040 HKT)
Russian President Vladimir Putin asks a court to show leniency for three members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot charged with hooliganism.
August 2, 2012 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Music stars including Pete Townshend of The Who, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand and Corinne Bailey Rae called on Russia to free members of the Pussy Riot punk band.
May 25, 2012 -- Updated 1351 GMT (2151 HKT)
Here's a clue: Walk into a cathedral wearing a neon mask, stand on the pulpit and scream songs with lyrics like "Virgin Mary drive Putin away!"
ADVERTISEMENT