MOSCOW — Three young women who staged an anti-Putin stunt in Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral, and whose jailing became a cause celebre championed by artists around the world, were convicted of hooliganism Friday and sentenced to two years in a penal colony.
In the most high-profile rights case in years, the imprisonment and trial of the women, members of a punk band called Pussy Riot, drew worldwide condemnation of constraints on political speech in Russia. Rallies in support of them were held in dozens of cities around the world Friday, including Paris, New York, and London, where demonstrators appeared outside the Russia’s embassy wearing balaclavas, Pussy Riot’s trademark headgear.
Human rights groups and Western governments, including the United States, immediately criticized the verdict as unjust and the sentence as unduly severe. Because the women acted as a group, they had faced a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. Prosecutors had urged a three-year sentence. The punishment was handed down by a Moscow judge, Marina Syrova, who described the women as posing a danger to society and said they had committed ‘‘grave crimes’’ including ‘‘the insult and humiliation of the Christian faith and inciting religious hatred.’’
As word of the sentences spread, a crowd of protesters outside the courthouse howled angrily, and then seemed to fall into a stunned silence. Sporadic protests and violent arrests continued during the evening.
While the courtroom emptied, the three women were left in their glass enclosure, nicknamed the ‘‘aquarium,’’ and photographers were allowed to snap pictures. As she was finally led away, the most outspoken of the three, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, said, ‘‘We are happy because we brought the revolution closer!’’
The other defendants were Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alyokhina, 24. Lawyers for the women said they intend to appeal the decision.
Russia has had an upwelling of dissent since disputed parliamentary elections last December, including demonstrations that drew tens of thousands of people in Moscow. But the Pussy Riot case in recent weeks morphed into an international sensation and focused intense attention on the efforts of the president, Vladimir V. Putin, to clamp down on the opposition.
This was partly because of the sympathetic appearance of the defendants — two are mothers of young children — and partly because their group uses music to carry its message. But it also set them in a David-and-Goliath struggle against a formidable power-structure: the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
But while the case has allowed critics of Putin to portray his government as squelching free speech and presiding over a rigged judicial system, it has also given the government an opportunity to portray its political opponents as obscene, disrespectful rabble-rousers, liberal urbanites backed by the West in a conspiracy against the Russian state and the Russian church.
The case began in February when the women infiltrated the Cathedral of Christ the Savior wearing colorful balaclavas, and pranced around in front of the golden Holy Doors leading to the altar, dancing, chanting and lip-syncing for what would later become a music video of a profane song in which they beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
Because of the support they have received from stars such as Madonna and Sting, the women have become famous, at least outside Russia, than other opposition leaders .
But while the women became minor celebrities, Pussy Riot is more political than musical: the band has never commercially released a song.