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Pussy Riot punk freed from Russian prisonPublish Date: Dec 23, 2013
Pussy Riot punk freed from Russian prison
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Maria Alyokhina, Jailed member of the all-girl punk band "Pussy Riot", sits in a glass-walled cage in court in Moscow, Auguat 8, 2012 (AFP)
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Russia on Monday freed one of the jailed members of punk band Pussy Riot whose almost two-year incarceration for a performance against President Vladimir Putin prompted global outrage.

The release of Maria Alyokhina from her prison in the city of Nizhny Novgorod under a Kremlin-backed amnesty was expected to be followed by that of her bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova from detention in Siberia.

Their release comes just three days after the shock pardoning and liberation of anti-Kremlin tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which many saw as a bid by 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."

"If I had a choice to refuse (the amnesty), I would" have done so, she said.

Whisked away to freedom

Alyohkina's release was marked by the same kind of security that marked that of Khodorkovsky, who was not seen until he touched down at a Berlin airport on Friday afternoon.

After receiving her documents, she was apparently whisked away from the prison by its administration without speaking with the media after the highly-anticipated release, her lawyer said.

"Today around 9:00 am (0500 GMT) she walked out to freedom," said the spokeswoman of the prison service in Nizhny Novgorod Yelena Nikishova.

"I don't know what her further plans are," she told AFP.

Her lawyer Irina Khrunova said penal colony administration apparently drove the 25-year-old out of the colony to avoid a media frenzy right near prison walls.

Alyokhina later surfaced in an office of a local human rights NGO Committee Against Torture and made her first phonecalls.

"Yes, she is here, she is speaking with rights activists," said the receptionist at the NGO.

Reporters waiting for Alyokhina by her colony number two in Nizhny Novgorod did not get a chance to speak with her right after she was whisked away.

"They didn't hand her over to her lawyer, probably to avoid a media frenzy," Khrunova said.

She added that Alyokhina's bandmate Tolokonnikova, 24, who is staying at a prison hospital in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, will also likely be freed Monday.

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.

The performance came just ahead of Putin's re-election to the Kremlin in polls in March 2012 and protested 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, but I don't know why she was freed in such a mysterious way, maybe it was because there was a crowd of press" Samutsevich told Dozhd.

"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.

"Hurray! Just spoke with Masha (Alyokhina) by phone! She is finally completely free," tweeted Tolokonnikova's husband Pyotr Verzilov, as he waited for his wife's release.

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.

The Kremlin amnesty has affected the young women as they are both mothers of young children. The measure also specifically listed their charge of hooliganism as a criteria for release.

AFP

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