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Russian court sentences Pussy Riot rockers to 2 years in prison

Three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot remain in jail after a performance in protest of Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

Updated at 11:29 a.m. ET: MOSCOW --  A judge sentenced three women who staged an anti-Kremlin protest on the altar of Moscow's main Russian Orthodox church to two years in jail each on Friday in a trial seen as test of President Vladimir Putin's tolerance of dissent.

The trio from punk band Pussy Riot, handcuffed in a courtroom cage, reacted with giggles and one rolled her eyes when the judge issued the sentences after reading the guilty verdict for almost three hours.


A man in the courtroom shouted "Shame!" and hundreds of protesters outside the Moscow courthouse repeated that chant and whistled when news of the sentence came.

"They are in jail because it is Putin's personal revenge," opposition leader Alexei Navalny said in the courtroom. "This verdict was written by Vladimir Putin."

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing a "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. They called on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.

Their feminist punk collective has about 10 members who appear in public in ski masks for anonymous impromptu performances they describe as a form of protest art.

The defendants said they were protesting against close ties between Putin and the Russian Orthodox church and did not intend to offend believers, but the judge rejected those arguments.

The U.S. Embassy in Russia criticized the sentences.

"Today's sentence in the Pussy Riot case looks disproportionate to the actions," the U.S. Embassy in Russia wrote in Russian on Friday on its Twitter microblog.

Pussy Riot supporters protest at Russian cathedral as global campaign heats up

Prosecutors had requested three-year sentences. The two-year sentences include the nearly six months served since the defendants were jailed following the Feb. 21 protest.

Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP - Getty Images

Members of the punk band Pussy Riot -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, center, Maria Alyokhina, right, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, left -- are escorted Friday by policewomen inside a Moscow court building.

In a sign of the tension over the trial in a small Moscow courtroom, Judge Marina Syrova was assigned bodyguards on Thursday following what authorities said were threats.

Divisions
The trial divided Russia's Orthodox Christians, with many backing the authorities' demands for severe punishment, but others saying the women should be granted clemency.

The trial featured a parade of state witnesses who say they were traumatized by the church performance, which prosecutors called an abuse of God.

Russia's Pussy Riot: Unmasked and on trial

Ahead of the verdict, their lawyers said the outcome will be dictated by the Kremlin. Putin's supporters denied that and portrayed the women as blasphemers and self-publicists who should be punished for committing a premeditated outrage against the Church.

Members of Pussy Riot were found guilty Friday after staging this protest on Feb. 21, 2012, inside Christ The Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

"It was a conscious deed. They understood quite clearly where they were going and why," said Vladimir Burmatov, who represents Putin's United Russia party in parliament.

Pussy Riot was formed last year in anger at Putin's decision to return to the presidency in an election after four years as premier. The band's public performances were popular on the Internet, but it is the trial that has brought them global fame.

The charges against them raised concern abroad about freedom of speech in Russia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Pop star Madonna has joined the chorus of criticism over the trial of a Russian women's punk band accused of religious hatred. The three women face years in jail after mounting a protest against Vladimir Putin on the altar of the country's main cathedral. It's part of a widening government crackdown on dissent. ITV's Paul Davies reports.

Small, but raucous protests were held Friday in a few dozen cities in support of the three women. A few dozen people came out in Barcelona, Spain, a couple hundred in Paris, and a handful in Washington. Other rallies were held in Bulgaria, Ukraine and elsewhere.

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The opposition says Putin saw the trial initially as a chance to strengthen his relationship with the influential Russian Orthodox Church -- about 70 percent of Russians say they follow the faith -- but his plans backfired.

Although believers were united in outrage that the band thrashed out a "punk prayer" deriding Putin in a place they consider sacrosanct, many were upset by the Church hierarchy's lack of forgiveness and calls for "divine retribution."

From March 2012: Anti-Putin activists pay high price, but refuse to back down

Many Russians, including some of the Orthodox faithful, are concerned about ties between church and state under Patriarch Kirill, who has praised Putin's rule as a "miracle of God."

Aware that a long sentence could reinforce the picture Pussy Riot has painted of him as intolerant and repressive, Putin told reporters this month that although the women had done "nothing good," they should not be judged too harshly.

But the damage to Putin's image abroad has already been done, and divisions between his supporters and opponents have widened, risking polarizing society even more than when protests took off against his 12-year-rule during the winter.

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In moves seen by the opposition as a crackdown, parliament has recently rushed through laws increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls on the Internet -- which is used to arrange protests -- and imposing stricter rules on defamation.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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