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Imprisoned Pussy Riot band members released

By Jethro Mullen. Diana Magnay and Jason Hanna, CNN
updated 1:39 PM EST, Mon December 23, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova says she believes her release is pre-Olympics publicity stunt
  • Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, jailed for performance critical of Putin, released
  • Tolokonnikova's husband says they have only been spared a small part of their sentence
  • Last week, Russian lawmakers backed a sweeping amnesty law

(CNN) -- Two members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who were serving two-year jail terms for their part in a performance critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been released from prison.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were released about two months before their prison sentences were due to end. The release was approved last week when Russian lawmakers backed a sweeping amnesty law announced by Putin.

"Two months out of the almost two years that the girls have served is not much," Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, told CNN. "So the effect of this amnesty for Maria and Nadezhda is not really felt."

The Russian government said the amnesty marked the anniversary of the adoption of Russia's post-Communist constitution in 1993.

Pussy Riot member released from jail
Pussy Riot members to be released?
Pussy Riot members' hunger strikes

But Tolokonnikova, released from a Siberian facility on Monday, told CNN she felt that the amnesty was a publicity stunt to bolster the government's image before it hosts the Winter Olympics in February. Verzilov said much the same.

"President Putin obviously used this amnesty option to (brighten) up his image before the Olympic games," Verzilov said.

Russia's record on human rights is in the spotlight as the country prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Pussy Riot's 2012 performance of a "punk prayer" that criticized Putin, who was prime minister at the time, was held at a Russian Orthodox cathedral. The musicians were found guilty of hooliganism.

Tolokonnikova went on a hunger strike during her prison term to protest what she said were poor conditions at a Mordovian prison. In October, she was transferred to a Siberian facility for medical treatment, and she remained there until her release Monday.

She said Monday that she is eager to help Russian prisoners by calling attention to conditions they face. But first, she said, she is looking forward to reuniting with family, including her 5-year-old daughter in Moscow.

In a lengthy letter in September to the news site Lenta (a translated version was published in London's The Guardian), Tolokonnikova described "slave labor" and unsanitary conditions in which women work through sickness and injury for up to 17 hours a day and are beaten -- or worse -- for failing to complete their duties.

Tolokonnikova wrote that her life was once threatened and other prisoners told her she was not beaten only because of the celebrity her case has brought her. Others are not so lucky, she said.

Prison authorities told state news agency RIA Novosti then that Tolokonnikova was blackmailing them for denying her request for special treatment.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have young children and therefore qualified for the amnesty, Russian media reported.

The new amnesty law is also expected to free some detained Greenpeace activists.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic, was released from a lengthy period in prison last week after a pardon from Putin. Khodorkovsky had been in prison since 2003 and was convicted in 2005 of tax evasion and fraud. He was due for release next year.

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

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