A Russian appeals court Wednesday ordered the release of one member of anti-Vladimir Putin punk band Pussy Riot after giving her a suspended term but ordered two others serve two years in a prison camp.
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, were contesting their conviction for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred over performing a song opposing Putin in Moscow's main cathedral in February.
The judge at the Moscow city court ordered the release of Samutsevich, 30, after giving her a two-year suspended prison camp term. However the two-year prison camp sentences of Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were upheld.
The release of Samutsevich was a major surprise but came after at the first appeals hearing on October 1 she announced she was changing her lawyer. Her new lawyer argued she had been apprehended before taking part in the performance.
Judge Larisa Polyakova ruled "to leave Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova's sentences without changes" while bowing to the appeal filed on behalf of Samutsevich, who was judged not to have actually been involved in the "Punk Prayer".
"This is of course unexpected," Yekaterina's father Stanislav Samutsevich told AFP after the ruling. "This is a great happiness."
He added: "On the one hand, I am very glad. On the other hand, I am disappointed by the decision in relation to the other girls."
In emotional scenes, the three women hugged before Samutsevich was led out of the glass-paned courtroom cage to freedom.
Calls for their release have been made by world figures from Madonna to Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi while the women have been nominated for the EU parliament's prestigious Sakharov prize for freedom of thought.
The women have been held in a Moscow prison since their March arrest and will only be transferred to a prison camp -- likely far from the Russian capital -- after the confirmation by the Moscow city court.
Earlier, all three had defiantly maintained their innocence, telling the court their cathedral performance of "Virgin Mary, redeem us of Putin!" was aimed at the Russian president and not religious believers.
"There is nothing anti-religious in the actions of Pussy Riot, it was political," Tolokonnikova told the court in her remarks.
"I am ready to apologise if I offended people but repenting is impossible as that would be acknowledging that our action was anti-religious which was not the case," she said.
Alyokhina said: "If the verdict remains unchanged we will go to the prison camp and we will not stay silent even if we are in Siberia."
But Samutsevich's new lawyer Irina Khrunova argued her client did not take part in the so-called "Punk Prayer" protest with the others since a security guard grabbed her and her electric guitar as soon as the performance began.
"The Punk Prayer took place without Samutsevich. She had already been taken out of the church," Khrunova said.
In a key development, the lawyer for the aggrieved, Lev Lyalin, said he agreed with her description of Samutsevich's involvement. "The actual facts really were laid out by Samutsevich's defence correctly and objectively."
Before the appeal process started, a call by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for the trio to be given a suspended sentence and released as well as signs of mercy from the powerful Russian Orthodox Church had given rise to some hopes among their supporters.
However Putin's latest comments in a television documentary last week gave little hint that he wanted to see any mercy.
In a special film made by state-owned NTV and aired on Putin's 60th birthday Sunday, the Russian leader laughed when the interviewer asked him about Pussy Riot, calling the band "talented" for making everyone repeat its "indecent" name.
Pressed to comment on the court's initial decision in August to jail the three women, Putin said: "It was right to arrest them and it was right that the court took the decision that it did."