After an appeal, a Moscow court overturned the original ruling and released on probation Ekaterina Samutsevich, the Pussy Riot activist who previously requested new counsel in light of the circumstances surrounding her arrest.
Samutsevich asked for a new lawyer on October 1, when the court was first convened to hear appeals on behalf the group. In a surprise move, Samutsevich claimed that she required new counsel, as the defense lawyers were only representing the group as a whole and special circumstances applied to her individual case. The appeals process was briefly delayed while Samutsevich sought new representation.
Irina Khrunova, Samutsvich’s new counsel, argued on appeal that Samutsevich had been removed from the church premises before she was able to engage in the ‘punk prayer.’
Khrunova emphasized the fact that Samutsevich never took part in the protest, and that she was only on the pulpit for 15 seconds. In the Orthodox tradition, only male priests may enter the pulpit, which is barred with a rail. Samutsevich barely had time to remove her guitar from its case, according to the additional statements, and was therefore unable to perform any of the offensive acts for which the defendants were found guilty.
In reading her statement, Samutsevich declared that while she did intend to perform a political act when entering the church on February 21, she had no intention of offending any religious beliefs.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs expressed shock at the new developments, calling Samutsevich’s position “hypocritical” and an “attempt to delay verdict”. They argued, unsuccessfully, that Samutsevich’s confirmation of her intent to carry out the protest warranted punishment in and of itself, and that any other statement was contradictory.
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's verdicts were unchanged: Two years each in a medium-security prison. The defense reiterated its claim that the girls are being persecuted for their political beliefs, and accused President Vladimir Putin of pressuring the judges. They argued that Putin expressed approval for the verdict.
In October, Putin stated that the band members “got what they wanted,” and voiced general approval of the arrest and the verdict on moral grounds. But earlier, at the London Olympics, Putin also remarked that the court should show leniency to the women.
“I’d like to reiterate our motives which were guiding us. Dear parish, we did not want to insult you… We are not offensive atheists. We are against taking down crosses or smearing icons with ink. We have been put in prison for our political agenda,” Alyokhina said. The judge ignored her statement and demanded the women explain which of their rights were violated during the trial.
The lawyers then said that church rules cannot apply to administrative courts, and they questioned most of the prosecution’s witnesses’ capability to deliver sound testimony. The judge, apparently unimpressed by the argument, upheld the earlier verdict for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova. The women’s lawyers expressed confusion over the results.
“We do not understand why the judge differentiated the actions of the Pussy Riot participants, we are happy that Samutsevich has been freed, but it would have been fair to set all the girls free,” Interfax quoted defense attorney Mark Feigin as saying after the verdict. “We will continue to fight this decision in the Supreme Court and using the authority of the European Court of Human Rights.”
Feigin added that the defense will seek to have Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova serve out the remainder of their terms in their current detention arrangement, "so that they could communicate with their children.” RIA-Novosti reported later in the day that the authorities did not grant this request, and that the two women will be transferred to prison in ten days.
Samutsevich was released shortly after the session. Though she appeared reluctant to comment, she told journalists that she was sad that the other two band members are still imprisoned, and that she will continue fighting for them. Her counsel, Khrunova, who used to represent jailed former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in court, said that Samutsevich faces further challenges in her bid for freedom.
“Of course today’s decision of the Moscow City Court to exchange jail time for probation is a victory, but it is not the final victory, as she has still been found guilty of committing a crime,” Khrunova said. If Samutsevich agrees, Khrunova will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Samutsevich will remain on probation for two years after she is released, and any deviation from her probation will likely result in her being arrested again. She is also required to regularly report to a police station.
On August 17, Maria Alyokhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and enmity for the band’s now-infamous ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s main cathedral. The three women each received a two-year jail term in a medium security prison.
In February, several members of Pussy Riot staged the performance of a profanity-laden ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where they chanted, “Mother of God, drive Putin away.” Witnesses said the women had offended their religious sensibilities, though the women argued that was never their intention.
The three women were taken into custody several days later, after a video with a studio-recorded soundtrack was posted on the Internet.
Prosecutors accused the band members of flagrant disregard for church parishioners and the fundamentals of the Orthodox faith. The defense lawyers claimed the performance was an act of political protest, and therefore had nothing to do with insulting Orthodox believers.
Amnesty International welcomed Samutsevich’s release but expressed concern for the continued imprisonment of the other two girls, the rights group said in a statement.
Investigative journalist Tony Gosling claimed that Pussy Riot’s choice of venue for their protest mattered more to the group than their freedom of expression.
“[Pussy Riot] have a freedom of expression, it’s just they shouldn’t have been doing that in one of the internationally most important cathedrals in the world,” Gosling told RT, adding that “a lot of what happened here is just simply around publicity, and this kind of thing taking place in a cathedral simply cannot go unpunished."
Political analyst Aleksandr Selivanov says the original defense team (Mark Feigin, Nikolai Polozov and Violetta Volkova), instead of performing their duties, have been making a bid to “win some points and become famous
” through the trial, which they helped to elevate from domestic to international renown.
Political analyst Dmitry Babich also says that employing political attorneys for the Pussy Riot case worked out well for publicity, but resulted in harsher sentences for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova.
“A trial like this one is a present to any attorney. We see now a change of generations… The new generation of attorneys is more cynical, more outspoken, obviously not interested in their client’s fate but certainly very interested in politics,” Babich told RT. “It was obvious that [Samutsevitch’s] new attorney was busier defending her client than making political statements.”