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Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova show the court's verdict as they sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia on Friday, Aug 17, 2012. A judge found three members of the provocative punk band Pussy Riot guilty of hooliganism on Friday, in a case that has drawn widespread international condemnation as an emblem of Russia's intolerance of dissent. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)
Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova show the court's verdict as they sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia on Friday, Aug 17, 2012. A judge found three members of the provocative punk band Pussy Riot guilty of hooliganism on Friday, in a case that has drawn widespread international condemnation as an emblem of Russia's intolerance of dissent. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)

Pussy Riot draws international support after guilty verdict Add to ...

In the hours after a judge sentenced activists from the Russian punk group Pussy Riot to two-year prison terms, protests erupted in dozens of cities worldwide as governments and celebrities spoke out, putting international pressure on President Vladimir Putin over what’s viewed as a crackdown on domestic dissent.

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Judge Marina Syrova on Friday found the three women guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, saying they deliberately offended people of the Russian Orthodox faith by storming into Moscow’s main cathedral in costume last February and playing a song that criticized Mr. Putin, a former KGB spy.

Mr. Putin has commented publicly that he believed the women should not be judged “too severely.” But many Russian activists believe the President was pulling the strings during a trial that pitted his regime against the new face of Russian dissidence – exemplified by Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22; Marina Alyokhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30

The trial highlights the delicate balancing act Mr. Putin must perform: As he tries to maintain an iron-fisted grip on his country, he’s faced with a youthful, Western-looking movement that is gaining international attention and support. The President’s reputation was damaged internationally as celebrities including Paul McCartney and Sting lined up to support the trio of activists during their trial and Madonna performed in Moscow with “Pussy Riot” painted on her back.

A Canadian connection, played up by an investigator in an interrogation video of one of the women, suggests authorities attempted to discredit the protest movement by implying it was influenced by foreign governments.

After showing what appears to be a Canadian permanent residency card in Ms. Tolokonnikova’s name, an investigator says the document indicates a “close relationship” with a “foreign state.”

In the video, Ms. Tolokonnikova says she has been to Canada but does not have residency status. However, her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, who went to high school in Canada and has dual citizenship, told CBC earlier this year that Ms. Tolokonnikova has Canadian residency.

Mr. Verzilov’s Canadian passport has also been shown on Russian TV to imply that he is acting on orders from a foreign country, the Washington Post reported.

While polls suggest Pussy Riot has little support in Russia, the band members have attracted international attention and brought new scrutiny on authorities’ attempts to crack down on dissent. The trial has also added new energy to a protest movement that has been holding massive rallies since last winter. Frustrated protesters say they are fighting Mr. Putin’s increasing authoritarianism; parliament has rushed through laws that increase fines for participants in unauthorized demonstrations and tighten defamation rules.

The women in Pussy Riot say they staged the protest at a Moscow cathedral to highlight Mr. Putin’s close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. They wore colourful ski masks, tights and short skirts and sang a song asking the Virgin Mary to drive Mr. Putin out of power.

The Russian Orthodox Church called the song “blasphemy,” but, on Friday after the verdict, it urged the state to exercise leniency, suggesting it would not object if Mr. Putin decided to issue a pardon.

Russian state prosecutors had asked the judge for a three-year term.

“Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina committed an act of hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious disrespect for society,” the judge said. “The girls’ actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church’s rules.”

The United States called the two-year sentence “disproportionate” and asked Russian authorities to review the case.

Reaction was strong from the European Union, and a spokesman for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs said Canada is watching the human-rights situation in Russia closely.

“The promotion of Canadian values, including freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law features prominently in our ongoing dialogue with the Russian authorities,” Ian Trites wrote in an e-mail.

In Moscow, at least 24 people were detained by police as they rallied outside the courtroom on Friday, according to witnesses. Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist opposition leader, and chess star Garry Kasparov were among those arrested.

In Ottawa on Friday, about 60 people held a peaceful one-hour protest across the street from the Russian embassy. The group chanted, sang a Pussy Riot song and read transcripts from the band’s closing statements in court.

The international protests are being heavily supported by Amnesty International. Shauna MacLean, an Amnesty youth coordinator who attended the Ottawa rally, said she was pleased with the turnout given the short notice for the protest.

Reports that one of the band members may be a Canadian permanent resident should not be the key issue compelling Prime Minister Stephen Harper to speak out, said Ms. Maclean.

“It’s definitely a factor but we really feel that Harper should bring this up with the Russian authorities regardless,” she said.

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