MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Human rights groups are denouncing the sentence handed down today to members of the Russian feminist punk band, Pussy Riot. The group's crimes? It staged a protest in Moscow's main Russian Orthodox Cathedral last winter. A judge convicted the three women of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced each of them to two years in a labor camp.
As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow, the punishment drew an angry response from demonstrators outside the court.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: A wave of groans and cat calls spread through the crowd as people learned that the judge had imposed two year sentences on Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Marina Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich.
Human rights groups and international pop stars had called for mercy for the women on the grounds that they're young, ranging in age from 22 to 30, and that two of them have young children. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, the target of the protest in the cathedral, said recently that he believes the women shouldn't receive harsh sentences.
Many in the crowd hoped that meant the sentence would be limited to the nearly six months the women have already spent in jail awaiting trial, but the crowd wasn't necessarily representative of the broader Russian society. A recent poll by the Levada Independent Research Group found that just six percent of Russians said they sympathized with the women.
The split in society was evident in the crowd outside the court. Orthodox believers jostled among pink-haired punks and middle-aged liberals. Free Pussy Riot t-shirts were prominent, like the one worn by Roman Abermenka(ph).
ROMAN ABERMENKA: I like what the girls did and I am a lawyer and whatever is going on there in the court has no slight relations to law.
FLINTOFF: Abermenka, who's 38, says he's been taking part in opposition protests since December, when tens of thousands of people rallied against perceived fraud in Russia's parliamentary elections.
Writer and opposition activist, Boris Akunin(ph), says the verdict will drive a wedge between those who support the regime and those who seek reforms.
BORIS AKUNIN: The split in the society will grow bigger and bigger and this is something which worries us - me - a lot. We don't want a revolution in this country.
FLINTOFF: The job of a president is to seek compromise, Akunin adds, but he says President Putin is throwing gasoline on the fire. Since Putin was reelected president in March, parliament has passed laws raising fines for so-called illegal protests. It has also tightened rules on defamation of public figures.
Police arrested several dozen activists during today's protest. People in the crowd applauded for the detainees as police hustled them into waiting vans. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.