MOSCOW: Three women from Russian punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail on Friday for their protest against President Vladimir Putin in a church, an outcome supporters described as the Kremlin leader's "personal revenge".
The band's supporters burst into chants of "Shame" outside the Moscow courthouse and said the case showed Putin's refusal to tolerate dissent. The U.S. embassy in Moscow said the sentence appeared disproportionate to what the defendants did.
The women have support abroad, where their case has been taken up by a long list of celebrities including Madonna, Paul McCartney and Sting, but opinion polls show few Russians sympathise with them.
"The girls' actions were sacrilegious, blasphemous and broke the church's rules," Judge Marina Syrova told the court as she spent three hours reading the verdict while the women stood watching in handcuffs inside a glass courtroom cage.
She declared all three guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, saying they had deliberately offended Russian Orthodox believers by storming the altar of Moscow's main cathedral in February to belt out a song deriding Putin.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Marina Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, giggled as the judge read out the sentences one by one. They have already been in jail for about five months, meaning they will serve another 19.
They say they were protesting against Putin's close ties with the church when they burst into Moscow's golden-domed Christ the Saviour Cathedral wearing bright ski masks, tights and short skirts.
State prosecutors had requested a three-year jail term.
Putin's opponents portray the trial as part of a wider crackdown by the former KGB spy to crush their protest movement.
"They are in jail because it is Putin's personal revenge," Alexei Navalny, one of the organisers of big protests against Putin during the winter, told reporters outside the court. "This verdict was written by Vladimir Putin."
Putin's spokesman did not immediately answer calls following the verdict, but the president's allies said before the trial that the Kremlin would not have any influence on the outcome. The Russian Orthodox Church also did not comment.
Foreign singers have campaigned for the trio's release, and Washington says the case is politically motivated. Madonna performed in Moscow with "PUSSY RIOT" painted on her back.
"As in most politically motivated cases, this court is not in line with the law, common sense or mercy," veteran human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva said.
But Valentina Ivanova, 60, a retired doctor, said outside the courtroom: "What they did showed disrespect towards everything, and towards believers first of all."
The judge said they had "committed an act of hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious disrespect for society." She rejected their argument that they had no intention of offending Russian Orthodox believers.
The trio's defence lawyers said they would appeal.
Many in Russia's mainly Orthodox Christian society backed the authorities' demands for severe punishment, though some have said the women deserved clemency.
Putin, who returned to the presidency for a third term in May after a four-year spell as prime minister, has said the women did "nothing good" but should not be judged too harshly.
Witnesses say at least 24 people were detained by police in scuffles or for unfurling banners or donning ski masks in support of Pussy Riot outside the courtroom. Among those detained were Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist opposition leader, and Garry Kasparov, the chess great and vehement Putin critic.
"Shame on (Russian Orthodox Patriarch) Kirill, shame on Putin," Udaltsov said before he was detained.
"A disgraceful political reprisal is under way on the part of the authorities ... If we swallow this injustice, they can come for any one of us tomorrow."
The crowd of about 2,000 people outside the court was dominated by Pussy Riot supporters but also included some nationalists and religious believers demanding a tough sentence.
"Evil must be punished," said Maria Butilno, 60, who held an icon and said Pussy Riot had insulted the faithful.
An opinion poll of Russians released by the independent Levada research group on Friday showed only 6 percent had sympathy with the women, 51 percent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility, and the rest were unable to say or were indifferent.
Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich are educated, middle-class Russians who say their protest was not intended to offend believers.
The charges against Pussy Riot raised concern abroad about freedom of speech in Russia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"Today's sentence in the Pussy Riot case looks disproportionate to the actions," the U.S. Embassy in Moscow wrote on its Twitter microblog in Russian.
Protests in support of the group were planned in cities from Sydney to Paris, and New York to London. A crowd of several hundred gathered in a New York hotel late on Thursday to hear actress Chloe Sevigny and others read from letters, lyrics and court statements by the detained women.
In the centre of Kiev, a bare-chested feminist activist took a chainsaw to a wooden cross bearing a figure of Christ, while in Bulgaria, sympathisers put Pussy Riot-style masks on statues at a Soviet Army monument.
"Huge damage has been done to the country's image and attractiveness for investors," former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin wrote in a message posted on his website.
Protest leaders say Putin will not relax pressure on opponents in his new six-year term. Parliament has already rushed through laws increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls on the Internet, and imposing stricter rules on defamation. AGENCIES