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News Wrap: Pussy Riot punk rockers maintain dissident tone despite pardon

December 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Uninsured Americans will get one more day to sign up for health coverage that kicks in New Year’s Day. The Obama administration today pushed back the deadline to tomorrow. Officials said the move should help the Web site cope with a last-minute surge of users. We will get more on the delay right after the news summary.

The Russian government freed two punk band musicians today who had protested under — against President Vladimir Putin.

We have a report narrated by Martha Fairlie of Independent Television News.

MARTHA FAIRLIE: Sixteen months in a Siberian prison has not softened the defiant stance of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. “Russia without Putin,” she said, as she walked out of the prison hospital gate. As a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, she was jailed last year for performing this song in a Moscow cathedral criticizing the orthodox church and Russia’s president.

Today, she hit out at the Russia’s new amnesty law, saying, “Putin blamed us for carrying out cynical acts, but in reality today’s act is much more cynical. They just put on another show ahead of the Olympics. Such is their desire to stop the European countries boycotting the Russian Olympics.”

Her pardon came hours after fellow band member Maria Alekhina was freed from another prison thousands of miles away. She says they will now turn to human rights work, but insists the methods they use will remain the same.

The amnesty law’s widely regarded as a move to improve Russia’s image before it hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. The country’s new leniency towards protesters is being welcomed by the European Union. But they still want more change. Last Friday, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was pardoned and freed. He spent 10 years in prison after challenging Putin’s power.

But there is no news on the so-called Arctic 30. The Greenpeace activists, including six Britons, are awaiting trial after protesting over drilling for oil in the Arctic.

GWEN IFILL: The crisis in South Sudan teetered today between all-out civil war and the prospect of negotiations. A former vice president now leading the rebels said he’s ready for talks if his political allies are freed. Meanwhile, the U.N. and the U.S. considered sending more troops. We will hear more about South Sudan’s turmoil from the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. later in the program.

In Syria, government forces kept up an assault in the north and casualties kept climbing. Helicopters dropping barrel bombs hit a town near Aleppo, where rebels have been under an intense nine-day bombardment. A Syrian human rights group says more than 300 people have died since the offensive began.

From Michigan to Maine, several hundred thousand homes and businesses spent another cold day without electricity. A wild mix of weekend weather knocked out power in a broad swath of states. Residents in rain-soaked areas of the Midwest faced swollen rivers, inundated homes, and flooded roadways. Meanwhile, repair crews in northern New York and New England raced to restore downed power lines that fell victim to freezing rain and ice-coated tree branches.

MAN: The thing is, when they get one line repaired, now another branch is coming down, so it’s just — they’re not really catching up. They’re not getting any ground, you know. It’s cold. We’re struggling to get the sump pump kicked on. I got a generator going down there, keeping the basement unflooded.

GWEN IFILL: At least nine deaths were blamed on the various storms.

A federal judge in Utah refused today to block gay marriages in one of the nation’s most conservative states. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby overturned the state ban on same-sex unions. More than 100 couples received licenses and were wed that same day, and hundreds more lined up today. The state had asked the courts to halt the marriages while it appeals the main ruling.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 73 points to close at 16,294. The Nasdaq rose 44 points to close near 4,149.

The man who created the world’s most popular and most deadly firearm, the AK-47, died today. Mikhail Kalashnikov was a weapons designer for the Soviet Union when he invented the gun in 1947. It was rugged and simple and became the choice of soldiers, guerrillas and terrorists alike. Mikhail Kalashnikov was 94 years old.