MOSCOW – Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday called for three members of the punk band Pussy Riot to be freed, a sign that the women's release could be imminent as their case comes up for appeal on Oct. 1.
The women were arrested for performing a raucous prayer inside Moscow's main cathedral asking Virgin Mary to save Russia from Vladimir Putin as he headed into the election that handed him a third term as president. They had already spent more than five months in jail when they were convicted in August of "hooliganism driven by religious hatred" and sentenced to two years in prison.
Medvedev remains subordinate to Putin. But by being the one to call for the women's release, the prime minister, who has cultivated the image as a more liberal leader, could allow Putin to put the case behind him while not appearing weak.
Medvedev said the women's appearance and the "hysteria" accompanying them made him sick, but keeping them in prison any longer would be unproductive.
"In my view, a suspended sentence would be sufficient, taking into account the time they have already spent in custody," he said during a televised meeting with members of his United Russia party.
The band members' imprisonment came to symbolize Putin's intensifying crackdown on dissent after his return to the presidency. Protesters around the world have demanded the women be freed, and their high profile supporters include pop star Madonna.
Ahead of the verdict, Putin said the women shouldn't be judged too harshly, creating expectations that they could be sentenced to time served and freed in the courtroom. But this would have left the impression that Putin had bowed to pressure, something he has resisted throughout his 12 years in power.
The court verdict, however, drew strong criticism even from some Kremlin loyalists.
Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who remains close to Putin, said it had dealt "yet another blow to the court system and citizens' trust in it." The head of a presidential advisory council on human rights voiced hope that the prison sentence would be repealed or at least softened.