On the eve of a critical appeals hearing, the Russian Orthodox Church has called for leniency for three young feminist punk rockers who received worldwide attention after performing a subversive stunt in a Moscow cathedral.
On Monday a court will hear the appeal of three members of the group Pussy Riot, who were sentenced to two years in jail in August for what they called a "punk prayer" in Christ the Savior Cathedral, in which they begged for divine intervention to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin.
The church released a statement saying that the stunt "can't be left unpunished," but that if they show "penitence and reconsideration of their action," then that "shouldn't be left unnoticed," according to The Associated Press.
The case of the three women was seen as a bellwether of the Kremlin's patience with an unprecedented protest movement, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets calling on Putin to go. Since Putin's inauguration for a third term as president in May, lawmakers from his United Russia have ushered in a string of laws restricting freedoms in Russia. That new legislation, along with the case of the three young women, was seen as an effort to intimidate Russia's opposition.
The trial of the three young feminists attracted worldwide attention and calls for their release from artists including Madonna, Sting, and Paul McCartney.
Before the verdict was handed down in August, Putin himself said he did not believe the women should be treated too harshly. They faced a maximum of seven years in prison on charges of "hooliganism."
It remains unclear how much sway the Russian Orthodox Church's statement will have on Monday's hearing.
Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev last week called the trio's detention "unproductive," but his influence is in question after several recent public disagreements with Putin.
In what may be a signal of the Kremlin's unwillingness to show any mercy to the detained women, United Russia lawmakers proposed legislation that would outlaw insulting religion.
In an interview from jail published in GQ magazine last week, one of the young women said their arrest has only drawn attention to their cause against Putin's government.
"We couldn't even imagine that the authorities would be so dumb that they would actually legitimize our influence by arresting us," Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova, 22, said in response to questions that the magazine said had been "smuggled" into the jail through the group's lawyers.
One woman's answers, the magazine, said, were confiscated.