The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Pussy Riot members reunited after release from prison, discuss joint human rights project

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KRASNOYARSK, Russia - Two members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were reunited on Tuesday after spending nearly two years in prison for their protest at Moscow's main cathedral, and said they want to set up a human rights organization.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina were granted amnesty on Monday, two months short of their scheduled release, in what was seen as the Kremlin's attempt to soothe criticism of Russia's human rights record before the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

Alekhina flew into the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk early Tuesday to meet Tolokonnikova. They have said the amnesty and their release was a publicity stunt by the Kremlin before the Olympics. Tolokonnikova has also called for a boycott of the Olympics.

Alekhina, still dressed in a dark green prison jacket, hugged Tolokonnikova and then shook hands.

Both women reiterated their Monday statement that they would like to focus their future work on helping prisoners, and that they will discuss setting up a human rights organization.

Their release came three days after President Vladimir Putin pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the onetime oil tycoon who had been behind bars more than 10 years in a case that critics said was Kremlin revenge for Khodorkovsky's political involvement.

Khodorkovsky, who flew to Germany on Friday, issued a brief statement congratulating Alekhina and Tolokonnikova.

"I know that the last months have been a living hell for you and I am happy to learn that this torture, unworthy of a European country in the 21st century, has ended," he said.

A third band member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released on a suspended sentence shortly after the three were found guilty of hooliganism and sentenced to two years in prison in 2012 for their protest at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

The women have denied the accusations that they were driven by hatred of religion, and said their performance was aimed at raising concern about the close ties between the church and state.

Russia's parliament passed the amnesty bill last week, allowing the release of thousands of inmates, including the two Pussy Riot members.

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Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.

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