KRASNOYARSK, Russia — Two jailed members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were freed Monday following an amnesty law that both described as a Kremlin public relations stunt ahead of the Winter Olympics.
Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were granted amnesty last week in a move largely viewed as the Kremlin’s attempt to soothe criticism of Russia’s human rights record ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.
The third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released on a suspended sentence months after all three were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and given two years in prison for their performance at Moscow’s main cathedral in March 2012. The band members said their protest was meant to raise concern over increasingly close state ties with the church.
Russian parliament passed the amnesty bill last week, allowing release of thousands of inmates. Ms. Alekhina and Ms. Tolokonnikova, due for release in March, qualified for amnesty because they have young children.
There has been an international outcry over Russia’s human rights record, including over a law passed earlier this year that bans so-called homosexual propaganda among minors, which gay groups in Russia and abroad say feeds the existing enmity toward gay people in the country.
Ms. Tolokonnikova on Monday walked out of a prison in the eastern Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, smiling to reporters and flashing a “V” sign. “How do you like our Siberian weather here?” asked Ms. Tolokonnikova, wearing a down jacket but no hat or scarf in minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit.
She said she and Ms. Alekhina will set up a human rights group to help prisoners. Ms. Tolokonnikova, 24, said the way Russia’s prisons are run reflects the way the country is governed. “I saw this small totalitarian machine from the inside,” she said. “Russia functions the same way the prison colony does.”
Ms. Alekhina, released earlier Monday from a prison outside the Volga river city of Nizhny Novgorod, said she would have stayed behind bars to serve her term if she had been free to turn it down. “If I had a chance to turn it down, I would have done it, no doubt about that,” she told Dozhd TV. “This is not an amnesty. This is a hoax and a PR move.”
She said the amnesty covers fewer than 10 percent of the prison population and only a fraction of imprisoned mothers. Women convicted of grave crimes, even those with children, are ineligible for amnesty.
Ms. Alekhina said prison officials did not give her a chance to say goodbye to cell mates, instead putting her in a car and driving her to the downtown Nizhny Novgorod train station. Before seeing her family and friends, she met with local rights activists and said she will work on defending human rights.
The two Pussy Riot members’ releases came days after President Vladimir Putin pardoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who spent a decade in prison after challenging Mr. Putin’s power. Upon release, Mr. Khodorkovsky flew to Germany and said he would stay out of politics, but pledged to fight to free Russia’s political prisoners.
Russia’s Supreme Court earlier this month ordered a review of the Pussy Riot case, saying a lower court did not fully prove their guilt and did not take into account their family circumstances when reaching its verdict. Also Monday, the European Court of Human Rights said it would review the band members’ complaint about their treatment at their 2012 Moscow trial.