By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Peace activist Yoko Ono on Friday joined the prominent call to free the three imprisoned Pussy Riot punk band members, saluting their stand for freedom of speech after being handed a two-year sentence for staging a "punk prayer" in Moscow's main cathedral.
"I thank Pussy Riot in standing firmly in their belief for freedom of expression and making all women of the world proud to be women," Ono told reporters in New York, flanked by the husband and four year old daughter of one band member.
She awarded the three imprisoned members - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich - a peace grant established in the name of her late husband, former Beatle John Lennon.
Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, accepted Ono's grant on behalf of the three women. He said he and his daughter visited Tolokonnikova in prison for the first time in six months earlier this week, where she is kept with her two fellow band members segregated from other prisoners.
Their daughter had sent her mother scribblings of plans of escape. "For her it has been very emotional," he said, talking of his daughter's drawing, "She breaks down the prison walls and helps Nadia's escape."
Ono joined Madonna, Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi and rights groups that have also stood up against the band's imprisonment.
Speaking just days ahead of an October 1 appeal by the band, when Amnesty International and other groups hope thousands of people will rally in dozens of cities, Ono said she "wanted to express my love and respect for them, I want to work for the immediate release from the prison they are in."
The jail sentences - for the crime of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after the band stormed the altar of Moscow's main cathedral calling on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin - has drawn sharp international criticism.
Opposition groups say the case was part of a Kremlin crackdown on dissent. Putin has declined to comment on the ruling, but has suggested abuses committed against the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet era made Pussy Riot's protest particularly offensive.
In response to the peace grant from Ono, Verzilov said his wife hoped the world was returning to the activism of her time in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Nadia wants people to continue to actively keep fighting and supporting the cause and to learn it is important to stand up for values that are crucial to you, no matter the price, no matter the cost," he said.
On Thursday Verzilov met with U.S. lawmakers and aides who have drafted legislation, known as the Magnitsky bill, to impose U.S. sanctions against any Russian officials involved in the prosecution of the band.
He did not expect the October 1 appeal to cause significant change to the two year sentences. Nor did he think Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's comments last week that the band should be freed would carry much weight. Hence he asked for international support.
Amnesty International have listed the three women on their Prisoners Of Conscience list that aims to free those wrongly imprisoned for their political, religious and other beliefs.
"At it's core this case is about three young women who are in jail for the crime of singing a song," Amnesty International USA Executive Director Suzanne Nossel told reporters. "Anybody can relate to this case and to these women and you cant help but feel your heart tugged."
Verzilov said that even now, from prison, the three women still do not regret the act -- "They are very strong women and nothing seems to break their spirit," he said.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Reich; editing by Andrew Hay)