MOSCOW - Russia on Monday freed both jailed members of anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot whose imprisonment prompted a wave of global outrage, but one immediately denounced her release as a “PR stunt”.
Both Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were freed two months early under a Kremlin-backed amnesty after serving most of their two-year sentences.
Alyokhina was quietly whisked away from her prison colony in the city of Nizhny Novgorod while Tolokonnikova emerged in much more public fashion a few hours later from a prison hospital in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia.
The move comes just three days after the shock pardoning and liberation of anti-Kremlin tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which many saw as a bid by President Vladimir Putin to improve Russia’s image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics that it is hosting in Sochi in February.
Showing she had lost none of her fighting spirit during her incarceration, Alyokhina used her first interview after her release to slam the amnesty as a mere publicity stunt, and said that she would have preferred to remain in prison.
“I don’t think it’s an amnesty, it’s a profanation,” she told the Dozhd television channel, saying it only applied to a tiny minority of convicts. “I don’t think the amnesty is a humanitarian act, I think it’s a PR stunt.” “In this situation, I was just a body being moved in space, nothing depended on me,” she said. “If I had a choice to refuse (the amnesty), I would have, without a doubt,” she said.
Alyokhina’s release was marked by the same kind of security that marked that of Khodorkovsky, who was not seen after his release until he touched down at a Berlin airport on Friday afternoon.
She was whisked away from the prison without speaking with the media after the highly-anticipated release, her lawyer said.
Her lawyer Irina Khrunova said prison officials drove the 25-year-old out of the penal colony to avoid a media frenzy.
Instead of going home to Moscow, Alyokhina went straight to the local rights NGO Committee Against Torture to discuss rights violations of fellow inmates.
Tolokonnikova, who spent the last part of her sentence in a prison hospital in Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk after a transfer from a notoriously harsh colony in the Mordovia region, finally walked out in the evening to a crush of journalists freezing in temperatures of in minus 20 degrees Celsius.
“Nadya is free!” wrote her husband Pyotr Verzilov on Twitter.
Rebels with a cause
The pair and fellow activist Yekaterina Samutsevich were convicted on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after staging a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012.
They later released a video clip of their performance which has now been banned.
The stunt came just ahead of Putin’s re-election to the Kremlin in March 2012 and was aimed at denouncing the Orthodox Church’s support of the Russian strongman during the campaign.
All were arrested in early March 2012. Samutsevich was later freed on appeal with a suspended sentence, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sent to faraway penal colonies to serve their two-year terms.
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, whose sentences would have run out in early March, were granted the amnesty last week after parliament approved a Kremlin-backed bill.
“I’m really happy that she is out,” Samutsevich told Dozhd after Alyokhina’s release.
“If she wants to be involved in human rights activities that is great, but the main thing is that she is fine and healthy,” she added.
Their jailing turned them from little-known feminist punks who staged a handful of guerrilla performances in Moscow to the stars of a global cause celebre symbolising the repression of civil dissent under Putin.
They received support from luminaries ranging from Madonna to Yoko Ono to Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
The case also polarised Russian society, with Orthodox conservatives regularly getting into fights with Pussy Riot supporters during the trial, and even staging rallies of their own.
Alyokhina told Dozhd she had not met a single person in prison who said their religious feelings were hurt by the performance.
If offered to do it over again, “we would sing the song to the end,” she said. “You have to listen to the whole thing, not just the first verse.”