Rep. Steve King defends jail sentence for Russian pro-democracy activists

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is receiving criticism from some conservatives after defending harsh prison sentences handed out against democracy activists in Russia.

During a visit to Moscow on Sunday, the Tea Party favorite declined to condemn the government for sentencing members of the punk group Pussy Riot to two years in prison for singing a song criticizing President Vladimir Putin in that city's Cathedral of Christ the Savior last year.

King said the band members “desecrated” the cathedral, earning the scorn of some conservatives who see the trial as evidence of Putin's crackdown on dissent.

“It’s hard to find sympathy for people who would do that to people’s faith,” King said.

“Shameful,” Daniel Foster, the news editor for the conservative National Review Online, tweeted in response Monday. His comment was retweeted by Dan Senor, a foreign policy advisor to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

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King made the comments during a press conference in Moscow at the end of a congressional delegation aimed at learning more about the Boston Marathon bombing suspects' links to Islamist militants in the Caucasus.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, echoed King's defense of Putin's Russia.

“Most of my friends in Congress don’t even know that the churches are open now,” he said.

The comments bring to light the divisions within the Republican Party on how to deal with an increasingly assertive Russian state under Putin.

King and Rohrabacher made clear during their trip to Russia that they see the country as a key ally in fighting Islamist radicalism, despite allegations of human rights abuses and Russia's support for Syria's Bashar Assad.

Others — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chief among them — consider Putin to be an authoritarian figure similar to his Soviet predecessors and view today's Russia as a geostrategic foe of the United States.

McCain, who last week became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since hostilities began more than two years ago, has long been the chief advocate in Congress for creating a no-fly zone and arming vetted rebel groups to give them a fighting chance against the Russian-supplied weapons used by Assad's forces.

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