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Freed Pussy Riot member vows to continue political protest acts

From Phil Black, CNN
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Thu October 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Samutsevich has "mixed feelings" about being free while her friends remain in prison
  • NEW: "We are not finished, nor are we going to end our political protest," she says
  • The court upheld 2-year sentences for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina
  • The sentence is linked to their performance of a song critical of President Vladimir Putin

Moscow (CNN) -- Only hours after she was freed from prison Wednesday, Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich vowed to continue the kind of political protest act that led to her imprisonment this summer for "hooliganism" alongside two fellow band members.

The Russian punk band members were sentenced in August for performing a song critical of President Vladimir Putin in one of the Russian Orthodox Church's most important cathedrals in February.

Although Samutsevich walked out of the court building Wednesday with a suspended sentence, the court upheld the two-year sentences for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina.

Previously on CNN.com: Two Pussy Riot members flee Russia to 'recruit foreign feminists'

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But in an exclusive interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Samutsevich said the punk rock band still has work to do in opposing Putin.

"We are not finished, nor are we going to end our political protest," she said. "The situation in the country has deteriorated since our performance and the trial itself is a testimony to that."

Pussy Riot still exists and will carry out more protest performances, she said, adding that rumors of divisions within the group are unfounded.

"We have to act in such a way that they" -- meaning Russian authorities -- "do not learn about concerts ahead of time ... and arrest us," she said.

She will be "more cautious" in her actions going forward, Samutsevich conceded.

Meanwhile, her "negative" attitude toward Putin and what she calls his "mega authoritarian project" remains unchanged, Samutsevich said.

She said the band's cathedral protest had been intended as a criticism of the support given by senior members of the Russian Orthodox Church for a third presidential term for Putin.

"We believe that we live in a secular society and in this state, the principles of the secular society should be respected," she said. "The representatives of the church should not interfere with the politics of the country, and we wanted to highlight this problem through our action."

However, the flash mob-style act was in no way an expression of hatred for the church or its believers, she stressed.

Footage of the brief but provocative protest action -- in which the band members, their faces shrouded by balaclavas, screamed "Mother Mary, please drive Putin away" inside Christ Savior Cathedral -- attracted wide attention after it was posted online. It also outraged many of the country's faithful.

The three women, who were arrested shortly after the protest act, were convicted and sentenced for hooliganism. Two other members of the female punk rock band have fled Russia.

Samutsevich said the court's decision to release her with a suspended sentence was a big surprise, and she has "mixed feelings" about being free after more than six months in custody.

"Of course I am very happy to be out and to be free, but I'm very upset that Nadezhda and Maria are still incarcerated," she said.

Although Samutsevich is a member of Pussy Riot and was involved in planning the protest act, she was stopped by a guard on her way into the church and so did not perform the "punk prayer" song, she said.

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This meant that she could not technically be sentenced for dancing at the altar, as the two others were, apparently leading the court to conclude that her sentence should be suspended.

Supporters responded joyfully in the courtroom as her release was announced.

Both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were very happy for her, Samutsevich said, despite the fact they are expected to serve the remainder of their prison terms in different prisons. Each of them has a young child.

They are "very, very upset" about being separated from their children, Samutsevich told Amanpour, "but they are holding up very well."

While in detention, the three young women were held in separate cells with three or four other women, she said. They were kept under close scrutiny and recorded at all times to start with, she said, but suffered no physical abuse.

Asked if Pussy Riot's action had made a difference, Samutsevich said she believes it made a lot of people think differently about Putin and his policies.

Their trial has also helped expose the flaws in the Russian judicial system and how it is influenced by the opinions of the president, Samutsevich said.

Wednesday's court decision came only a week after Samutsevich took on a new legal team for the appeal, saying she wanted to push her defense in a different direction.

Speaking outside court, lawyers for Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina said they would try to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Rights group Amnesty International said Wednesday's ruling was "only a half-measure in achieving justice" for the women, and called for all three to be released immediately and unconditionally.

"Any decision that shortens the wrongful detention of the three women is welcome. But no one should be fooled -- justice has not been done today," David Diaz-Jogeix, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia deputy program director, said in a statement.

"The government has introduced numerous new restrictions to freedom of expression in recent months. As this decision demonstrates, Russia's judiciary is unlikely to offer much protection to those who fall foul of them."

The band's conviction and sentencing garnered an international outcry, with celebrities from Paul McCartney to Anthony Bourdain to Madonna backing the cause of the strident trio.

"Say what you will about Pussy Riot: this might not be your kind of music. Their actions might offend you. But this doesn't change the fact that freedom of expression, in whatever peaceful form it takes, is a human right, and one on which the protection of other rights rests," wrote Michelle Ringuette of Amnesty International USA.

A judge rejected the women's defense that their actions were politically motivated, ruling that they had intended to insult the Orthodox Church and undermine public order.

An Orthodox Church leader has been widely reported as saying Putin's years in power have been a miracle from God.

Before the hearing last week, the Russian Orthodox Church appealed for leniency for the band members, according to state-owned Ria Novosti.

The church believes repentance will "benefit the souls" of the band members, the news agency said.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has called for the members' release but also said he is "sickened" by their actions.

CNN's Laura Smith-Spark, Alla Eshchenko and Alexander Felton contributed to this report.

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