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Anger after Pussy Riot sentenced to two years

Three members of the Russian band Pussy Riot have been jailed for two years for staging a protest against President Vladimir Putin. World leaders have joined protesters around the world in condemning the verdict.

A Moscow court on Friday slapped the three members of the feminist punk band with a two year prison sentence on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Judge Marina Syrova said the three band members had "carefully planned" their action and that they had "crudely undermined the social order."

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Pussy Riot members jailed for two years

The verdict was met with chants of "shame" from hundreds of protesters who were gathered outside the courtroom. Dozens were detained by police when clashes broke out.

Protesters took to the streets in cities around the world, many donning trademark Pussy Riot balaclavas. Six protesters were arrested in New York for blocking traffic and wearing face masks, an act which is banned under local law.

The White House and the EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton joined the growing chorus of opposition, condemning the jail sentences as "disproportionate."

"We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, said the sentences were "excessively harsh [and] not in harmony with the values of European law and democracy to which Russia has professed as a member of the Council of Europe."

Furious, but not bitter

Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, right, Maria Alekhina, center, and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow (Foto:Misha Japaridze/AP/dapd)

Pussy Riot said they were protesting the Russian Orthodox Church's close relationship with Putin

On February 21, Pussy Riot performed the song "Punk Prayer," wearing their trademark knitted balaclavas and short skirts inside Moscow's biggest cathedral, Christ the Savior. In the chorus, they called for the Virgin Mary to "drive out Putin."

The defendants - 23-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 - had said their short protest performance was made to express resentment over Russian Orthodox Church support for Putin's rule.

In a letter posted by her lawyer on the eve of the verdict, band member Tolokonnikova said she was "politically furious" about her detention, but "not bitter."

"Our imprisonment serves as a clear and unambiguous sign that freedom is being taken away from the entire country," said Tolokonnikova.

Stiffling protest

Putin's opponents say the trial is part of a wider agenda by the president, a former secret service agent, to stifle protest against his administration.

U.S. singer Madonna performs during her concert at Olympic Hall in Moscow

Madonna voiced her support for the band on a recent Russian tour

The case was heard in the same week Putin marked the first 100 days of his third term as president. In that time, he has introduced restrictions on protests and political NGOs with foreign sources of income.

The US State Department recently incurred Moscow's anger by expressing formal concern about the "politically motivated prosecution of the Russian opposition."

Release rallies in support of the band have taken place across the world with celebrities including ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and pop icon Madonna adding their voices to the group's supporters.

ccp, rc/lw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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