Putin: Amnesty to free punk band duo despite 'disgraceful' protest

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot would be freed under an amnesty but described their protest against him in a church as disgraceful. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, are serving a two-year jail sentence for performing a crude "punk prayer" against Putin and his ties to the Russian Orthodox church in Moscow's main cathedral. The two women had been due for release in March but are now expected to be freed sooner under the amnesty, in part because both are mothers of small children. The amnesty will also enable 30 people arrested in a Greenpeace protest against Arctic oil drilling to avoid trial - removing two irritants in ties with the West before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in February. But Putin said the amnesty was not drafted with the Greenpeace activists or Pussy Riot in mind. It was passed, he said, to mark the 20th anniversary of Russia's post-Soviet constitution. "It (the amnesty) is neither linked to Greenpeace, nor this group (Pussy Riot)," he told an annual news conference. The Kremlin leader made clear he had no doubts about Russia's handling of both cases although it drew criticism from Western nations and a number of global celebrities. "I was not sorry that they (the Pussy Riot members) ended up behind bars," Putin said. "I was sorry that they were engaged in such disgraceful behavior, which in my view was degrading to the dignity of women." "They went beyond all boundaries," he said. (Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel, Editing by Timothy Heritage)