A court in Moscow has found three members of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk band, guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, and sentenced them to two years of corrective labour in a general penal colony.
The trio was facing charges regarding their performance of a song in an Orthodox church criticising Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Friday's verdict and sentencing came amid criticism of a lack of freedom of expression in Russia, with Pussy Riot supporters saying the case has put President Vladimir Putin's tolerance of dissent on trial.
The sentencing to corrective labour is the harshest possible for first-time female offenders.
The three young women, in handcuffs, stood in silence in a glass courtroom cage and at times smiled and laughed to each other as the judge, Marina Syrova, read out the verdict.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, stormed the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February wearing bright ski masks, tights and short skirts and sang a "punk prayer" urging the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
"Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina committed an act of hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious disrespect for society," Syrova said.
"The girls' actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church's rules."
She said their brief protest was based on "motives of religious hatred and enmity", but that she had taken mitigating circumstances into account when sentencing them, including the fact that both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova had young children.
"Our imprisonment is a clear and distinct sign that the whole country's freedom is being taken away," Tolokonnikova said in a letter written in jail and posted on the internet before the verdict by defence lawyer Mark Feigin.
Scuffles outside courtroom
Putin's opponents portray the trial as part of a wider crackdown by the former KGB spy to crush their protest movement.
Pop stars led by Madonna - who performed in Moscow with "PUSSY RIOT" painted on her back - have campaigned for the women's release, and Washington says the case is politically motivated.
|The judge said Pussy Riot's actions were blasphemous[Reuters]
In a sign of the tension over the trial in a small Moscow courtroom, judge Syrova was assigned bodyguards on Thursday after receiving threats.
Police blocked off the street outside the brick courthouse with metal barriers, and police buses stood by.
Witnesses saw at least 24 people detained by police in scuffles or for unfurling banners or donning balaclavas in support of Pussy Riot outside the courtroom. Among those detained were Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist opposition leader, and Garry Kasparov, the chess great and vehement Putin critic.
"Shame on (Russian Orthodox Patriarch) Kirill, shame on Putin," Udaltsov said before he was detained.
"A disgraceful political reprisal is underway on the part of the authorities. ... If we swallow this injustice they can come for any one of us tomorrow."
The trial has divided Russia's mainly Orthodox Christian society, with many backing the authorities' demands for severe punishment over a protest the prosecution has described as sacrilege, but others asking for clemency for the women.
Putin, who returned to the presidency for a third term in May and a four-year spell as prime minister, has said the women did "nothing good" but should not be judged too harshly.
In a statement released after the sentencing, the Church on Friday asked the state "to show mercy within the frameworks of the law" for the punk rockers.
"The girls went too far, but they should be fined and released," said Alexei, a 30-year-old engineer on a Moscow street near the court. He declined to give his family name.
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But Valentina Ivanova, 60, a retired doctor, said "what they did showed disrespect towards everything, and towards believers first of all".
"Evil must be punished," said Maria Butilno, 60, who held an icon and said Pussy Riot had insulted the faithful.
An opinion poll of Russians released by the independent Levada research group on Friday showed only six per cent had sympathy with the women. Fifty-one per cent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility. The rest were unable to say or were indifferent.
The band members are educated, middle-class Russians who say their protest was intended to highlight close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin, not to offend believers.
The charges against Pussy Riot raised concern abroad about freedom of speech in Russia, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Protests in support of the group were held on Friday in cities from Sydney to Paris, and New York to London, and a long list of international celebrities have backed their cause.
In Kiev, a bare-chested feminist activist took a chainsaw to a wooden cross bearing a the figure of Christ in the centre of
the city. In Bulgaria, sympathisers put Pussy Riot-style masks on statues at a Soviet Army monument.
Governments including the United States, Britain, France and Germany joined the chorus on Friday, denouncing the sentences as disproportionate.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, also echoed that sentiment, saying that the case "puts a serious question mark over Russia's respect for international obligations of fair, transparent and independent legal process".
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies