Jailed Pussy Riot members dismiss legal team

The two jailed members of Pussy Riot punk band have fired their high-profile legal team and hired the lawyer who helped free their bandmate, the husband of one of the women told AFP on Monday.

One of the lawyers who was dropped linked the decision to a sparring match on Friday between President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the case.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were sentenced in August to two years in prison after they staged a balaclava-clad performance inside Moscow's main cathedral mocking Putin.

The initial legal team, who have built a reputation defending leading opposition activists, used a political strategy in the trial that saw the three women jailed in August.

In October, an appeals court freed Samutsevich after a more pragmatic defence by lawyer Irina Khrunova.

Tolokonnikova's husband Pyotr Verzilov said Monday that she and Alyokhina, whose sentences were upheld, had hired Khrunova for a second appeal.

"Now the interests of Nadya and Masha will be defended by Irina Khrunova," he said, referring to the women by their nicknames.

"It was decided that it would be more sensible to change the lineup of lawyers," he said, calling it a "joint decision that was worked out calmly" by both the lawyers and the women.

The three original Pussy Riot lawyers, Mark Feigin, Nikolai Polozov and Violetta Volkova, helped put the Pussy Riot case in the spotlight with constant Twitter posts and television appearances.

Samutsevich created a sensation in Russia when she dismissed Volkova and hired Khrunova, who successfully argued that guards had grabbed her before she could take part in the anti-Putin performance.

Feigin broke the news that he was leaving the case on Twitter, saying the lawyers had just been refused a meeting with Tolokonnikova in her prison camp in Mordovia.

"According to our agreements, we, Volkova, Polozov, Feigin, are leaving the Pussy Riot case," he tweeted.

The lawyers suggested it was now in the women's interests to have a different approach after their combative style at the trial.

"The fact we had a certain media profile was already starting to hurt the women," Polozov told the Bolshoi Gorod bi-weekly.

Feigin hinted of a threat to the women in jail, saying: "We cannot expose Nadya and Masha to danger anymore. We are leaving."

But Verzilov insisted that "there is no threat" to the women.

Polozov linked the decision to Putin's exchange with Merkel at a joint news conference in Moscow, which he suggested led to the questioning of the two jailed punk rockers.

Putin accused Pussy Riot of anti-Semitism in an angry retort to Merkel after she told him she did not think the women would have been jailed in Germany.

The Russian leader described a satirical art performance in which Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova took part in 2008 as anti-Semitic, although his description of a part involving an effigy of a Jewish man was inaccurate.

"The fact we had a certain media profile was already starting to hurt the women," Polozov told Bolshoi Gorod bi-weekly.

"After Putin's comment about the 'Jew effigy', Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were called in to talk to investigators," he said.

Putin's harsh line on the case has put him in opposition to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a lawyer by training, who said this month that while he disliked the Pussy Riot performance, he believed they should be released.

Separately, local lawyers are working on efforts to get the women freed by regional courts on the grounds that both have small children and could have their sentences postponed until their children are older.

Tolokonnikova's husband Verzilov also said Khrunova "is already preparing" complaints to the European Court of Human Rights on the women's behalf.

Khrunova filed a complaint in October on Samutsevich's behalf over the women's arrest, lack of a fair trial and inhuman treatment during the hearings.

The women's case is also due to be heard in a second appeal by a higher-level Russian court, Verzilov said.

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