Russian Punk Band Critical of President Putin has Russian PM on Their Side

Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia on Monday Oct. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)
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PARTSA, Russia (AP) -- Russia's prime minister said Friday the women in the Pussy Riot punk band serving two-year prison sentences should be set free, while a band member's husband tried to visit his wife in jail in a central Russian region known for its gloomy Stalinist-era gulags.

Three members of the band were convicted on hooliganism charges in August for performing a "punk prayer" at Moscow's main cathedral during which they pleaded with the Virgin Mary for deliverance from President Vladimir Putin.

One of them, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released on appeal last month, but the other two, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, were sent to prison camps to serve their sentences.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Friday that he detested the Pussy Riot act, but added the women have been in prison long enough and should be released. He made a similar statement before October's appeal hearings, fueling speculation about their possible release. Medvedev's latest comment is unlikely to take effect, since he is widely seen as a liberal yet nominal government figure whose pledges and orders are seldom followed through on.

Also Friday, Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, was turned away by authorities when he tried to visit her at a prison camp in the village of Partsa in Mordovia, a region well known in Russia for the Gulag camps here filled with the tens of thousands in the 1930s.

He had brought paperwork regarding the ongoing legal drama of the Pussy Riot trial, which should have enabled him to meet his wife on prison grounds. But he was told that she remains in quarantine for several more days.

Tolokonnikova and a team of lawyers are planning an appeal to a regional court, requesting that her sentence be put off until the couple's daughter, 4-year-old Gera, is 14, Verzilov said.

While both Tolokonnikova and Alekhina both have small children, their lawyers' frequent reference to that fact has had little effect on Pussy Riot members' two-year sentences, which were upheld in an October appeal.

Verzilov said his wife has been treated well by prison officials, but he attributed that to the publicity stirred up by the trial.

The band members' imprisonment has come to symbolize intolerance of dissent in Putin's Russia and caused a strong international condemnation. Their cause has been taken up by celebrities and musicians, including Madonna and Paul McCartney, and protests have been held around the world.

For Partsa -- a dot on the map where most working-age adults are dressed in uniform -- newcomers and journalists attract suspicious glances and hostile questioning.

"All that would be needed here would there be an order from someone high-placed in Moscow who'd say, `Press her, make her feel the real Russian prison,"' said Verzilov, hopeful but skeptical about the good treatment. "People follow the instructions they are given from the top."

The women are woken up at 6:30 a.m., and their workday begins at 7:30 a.m. and continues for eight hours by law, but sometimes more. Most of the women in Tolokonnikova's prison work in the sewing industry, where they make clothes for the well-padded echelons of Russia's special and civil services.

Tolokonnikova has not yet begun working mandatory shifts, but was offered the chance to break some asphalt within the prison compound last week, a task she undertook with fervor after being cooped up for too long, Verzilov said.

Relatives are allowed to visit the women inside the prison for several hours, six times a year. Conjugal visits, for three days, are permitted four times per year. With the right stack of paperwork, prisoners are allowed food, books, medicine, and clothes -- in black, the uniform of the prison -- from relatives and friends.

Even if Tolokonnikova lobbies to have her sentence delayed until her daughter is a teenager, her effort may have effect only if and when the political tide in the Kremlin turns her way.

Svetlana Bakhmina, a lawyer arrested in the wake of the politicized trial of her boss, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was sent to the same penal colony where Tolokonnikova now lives.

But despite having two children, aged 2 and 6 at the time of her arrest, Bakhmina was only released early when she became pregnant in prison. She was released in 2009, several months after the birth of her daughter.

Meanwhile, Russia's main Russian patent agency refused to register the words "Pussy Riot" as a trademark, Rospatent said Friday. The agency did not provide any details on why the request was turned down.

The registration request came from a company that belongs to the wife of the band's lawyer, Mark Feigin.

Feigin tweeted that he will try to register the trademark in the West.