By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot took to a New York stage on Wednesday evening to demand the release of anti-government prisoners as Russia prepares to open the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
President Vladimir Putin has staked his reputation on the Sochi Games. But Russia has come under pressure by human rights activists in the months leading up to the games for its intolerance of political dissent and a law passed last year banning promotion of homosexuality among minors.
"We demand a Russia that is free and a Russia without Putin," said Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, after being introduced at Amnesty International's "Bringing Human Rights Home" concert by the pop star Madonna.
The case of Pussy Riot, in particular, has sparked a global outcry.
In 2012, Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after storming Moscow's biggest Orthodox cathedral and beseeching the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin.
After nearly two years behind bars, Putin granted them amnesty in December.
Before speaking at the concert, the pair met with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to discuss "disturbing" trends in Russia, prompting a retort from Moscow's U.N. envoy.
At the concert, the pair sought to draw attention to the fate of eight Russian demonstrators who will be sentenced later this month after being charged with mass disorder at a 2012 protest against Putin.
While Pussy Riot did not perform, R&B singer Lauryn Hill, Blondie, and the alternative rock groups Imagine Dragons and Cake played at the all-star concert at a packed Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
"Pussy Riot in many ways symbolizes the spirit of what Amnesty stands for, which is that we take injustice personally and that we speak truth to power," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general, at a press conference before the concert.
"We do not want anybody to be fooled by what is happening before the Sochi Olympics."
At the same news conference, Alyokhina said she absolutely did not regret the performance that landed her in prison and said there was no question but that she would continue to live in Russia.
"We want to say to him, 'Leave,'" she said of Putin.
Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina also denied rumors about Pussy Riot's demise.
"Anybody can be Pussy Riot. You just need to put on a mask and stage an act of protest in your particular country," Alyokhina said. "We are just two individuals that spent two years in jail for taking part in a Pussy Riot protest action."
While in the United States, the women plan to visit prisons and meet with related non-governmental organizations to gain insight into how the Russian prison system might be improved.
The women made a similar trip to Holland, but said they could not imagine that Russian prisons would ever resemble Dutch facilities, which Tolokonnikova described as "a universe apart."
The event marks the return of a global concert series that Nobel Peace Prize-winning Amnesty International began 25 years ago, which has featured such rock greats as U2, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Lou Reed.
"Now it's time to pass that torch to another generation of young artists," said Steven Hawkins, Amnesty's executive director.
(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Eric M. Johnson and Lisa Shumaker)