A Moscow appeals court on Wednesday unexpectedly freed one of the jailed Pussy Riot members, but upheld the two-year prison sentence for the two others jailed for an irreverent protest against President Vladimir Putin.

All three women were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for an irreverent protest against President Vladimir Putin.

The judge upheld the prison sentences for Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — a 22-year-old woman with ties to Canada — and Maria Alekhina, 24, but issued a suspended sentence for Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30.

The Moscow City Court ruled that Yekaterina Samutsevich's sentence should be suspended because she was thrown out of the cathedral by guards before she could remove her guitar from its case and take part in the performance.

"The punishment for an incomplete crime is much lighter than for a completed one," said Samutsevich's lawyer, Irina Khrunova. "She did not participate in the actions the court found constituted hooliganism."

The trio told the court earlier Wednesday that they should not be imprisoned for their irreverent protest against President Vladimir Putin, insisting that their impromptu performance inside Moscow's main cathedral was political in nature and not an attack on religion. 

'We didn't mean to offend anyone'

Dressed in neon-coloured miniskirts and tights, with homemade balaclavas on their heads, the women performed a "punk prayer" asking Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin as he headed into a March election that would hand him a third term. They were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison.

"We didn't mean to offend anyone," said Alekhina, who along with Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich spoke in court from inside a glass cage known colloquially as the "aquarium." She said they were protesting Putin and also the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy for openly supporting his rule.

"We went to the cathedral to express our protest against the joining of the political and spiritual elites," Alekhina said. 

The appeal was postponed from Oct. 1 after Samutsevich fired her lawyers. Prosecutors criticized the move as a delaying tactic.

Her father, Stanislav Samutsevich, attributed his daughter's release mostly to the change in lawyers. He said he was deeply sorry for the two others, who are expected to be sent to a prison colony to serve out their sentences.

Case seen as sign of Putin's growing crackdown on dissent

The case has been condemned in the U.S. and Europe, where it has been seen as an illustration of Putin's intensifying crackdown on dissent after his return to the presidency after four years as prime minister. 

Putin, however, recently said the court ruled correctly because "It is impermissible to undermine our moral foundations, moral values, to try to destroy the country." Defense lawyers said Putin's remarks amounted to pressure on the appeals court.

"I want a court ruling on President Putin on the inadmissibility of his meddling" in the court case, defense lawyer Mark Feigin said.

A lawyer representing cathedral staff, Alexei Taratukhin, urged the court to uphold the verdict because the women's actions "had nothing to do with politics, democracy or freedom."

The church has said it would ask for clemency for the three women if they repented. But the defendants said Wednesday that they could not repent because they harboured no religious hatred and demanded that the conviction be overturned.

Rights groups were frustrated by the appeals court decision.

"To see these two women sent to a Russian penal colony for the crime of singing a song undercuts any claim that Putin and the Russian government have to democracy and freedom of expression," Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Washington. "It's a very cold climate for human rights in Russia right now."

The Moscow City Court began Wednesday's hearing by dismissing two defense motions, including one to call more witnesses to the performance inside Christ the Savior Cathedral.