Three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a prison colony by a Moscow court today, Friday.
They were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for performing a protest song against Russia’s president Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral earlier this year.
The trial of the three musicians— Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich—has drawn widespread condemnation both in Russia and internationally.
Russia’s state, church and legal system are tightly woven together into a corrupt and authoritarian network. There is little doubt that the impetus for the trial came from the top. But opinion is divided on whether it came from Putin himself or from the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Some opposition activists believe that Putin was reluctant to make a big issue out of Pussy Riot, but felt he had to appease powerful figures in the church. His popular support rests upon the large number of ordinary Russians that hold conservative and nationalist views.
Pussy Riot are part of a growing opposition movement to Putin in Russia, something that is often ignored or played down in the international media coverage of their case. The crackdown on their dissent goes hand in hand with other less high profile cases.
One upcoming case involves people who demonstrated on 6 May, the day before Putin’s inauguration for his third term as president. The police brutally attacked a huge opposition march in Moscow and arrested around 400 protesters.
Sixteen of those are now being framed for “calling for mass riots” and “violence against police officers”—charges which could attract sentences of up to 13 years in prison. Little is known about the police investigation, or how the trial will be conducted.
Putin wants to use the trials of the 6 May protesters to intimidate the movement against them. This move comes on top of a number of new laws that severely restrict the right to protest.
But so far the vindictive treatment of Pussy Riot appears to have backfired, generating increased resentment of the Orthodox Church and the legal system. Anti-Putin campaigners hope a similar backlash will hit the government around the other cases too.
All the signs are that the protest movement in Russia is here to stay. International solidarity has been important for Pussy Riot. But it will also be needed to counter Putin’s attacks on the 6 May demonstrators and their right to protest.
For more on the campaign to support the 16 anti-Putin protesters facing trial go to 6may.org