LONDON – Russia's President Vladimir Putin on Thursday criticized the feminist punk rockers facing trial for performing a "punk prayer" against him at Moscow's main cathedral, but said that a punishment for them shouldn't be too severe.
Putin's comments to Russian reporters on a visit to the London Olympics were the leader's first reaction to the trial of three members of the Pussy Riot band, whose imprisonment has drawn international outrage. It may signal that the Kremlin has opted for a milder punishment for the women than the seven years they could face.
Asked about the case, Putin said that the stunt "was no good" and would have entailed a much tougher punishment for its participants if they had performed it at a holy site in Israel or even death if they had done it at some Muslim site in Russia's North Caucasus region.
"If they went to desecrate some Islamic holy site, we wouldn't even have had time to take them into custody," he said before suggesting that they had already learned their lessons and mustn't face an especially tough punishment.
"I don't think that a verdict should be very severe," he said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies. "I hope that the court will make a fair, well-founded ruling."
Courts in Russia closely heed signals from the government, and Putin's statement sounded like a clear sign that the verdict for the rockers might be milder than anticipated.
Putin's visit to the games came as leading British musicians joined an international outcry over the band's treatment. The Who's Pete Townshend, former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys and others said that the band members were involved in legitimate protest and called for their release in a letter published Thursday in The Times of London.
Asked whether he discussed the Pussy Riot case during his Thursday's talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin answered negatively.
Pussy Riot performed their stunt two weeks before Putin's return to the presidency in March's election, when five women dressed in brightly colored miniskirts and balaclavas took over a pulpit of the Christ the Saviour, Moscow's main cathedral for less than a minute. They high-kicked and danced while singing a song pleading "Virgin Mary, drive Putin away!"
The three members of the band — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 — have been in custody for five months since their February stunt.
At their trial that began in earnest Monday, they pleaded not guilty to the charges of hooliganism driven by "religious hatred", saying that they simply wanted to express their outrage about the Russian Orthodox Patriarch's support for Putin.
The trial fell into a broader pattern of widening crackdown on dissent after Putin's return to presidency. Their prosecution has caused a sharp public divide and drawn protests from rights groups who have declared them prisoners of conscience.