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You're reading: Russia’s ‘Pussy Riot’ on trial for cathedral protest (updated)

MOSCOW - Three women who protested against Vladimir Putin in a "punk prayer" on the altar of Russia's main cathedral went on trial on Monday in a case seen as a test of the longtime leader's treatment of dissent during a new presidential term.

The women from the band “Pussy Riot” face up to seven years
in prison for an unsanctioned performance in February in which
they entered Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, ascended the
altar and called on the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out!”

Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and
Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, were brought to Moscow’s Khamovniki
court for Russia’s highest-profile trial since former oil tycoon
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted for a second time in 2010, in
the same courtroom.

Supporters chanted “Girls, we’re with you!” and “Victory!”
as the women, each handcuffed by the wrist to a female officer,
were escorted from police van into the courthouse.

“We did not want to offend anybody,” Tolokonnikova said from
the same metal and clear-plastic courtroom cage where
Khodorkovsky sat with his business partner during their trial.

“Our motives were exclusively political.”

The stunt was designed to highlight the close relationship
between the dominant Russian Orthodox Church and former KGB
officer Putin, then prime minister, whose campaign to return to
the presidency in a March election was backed clearly, if
informally, by the leader of the church, Patriarch Kirill.

The protest offended many believers and left the church
leadership incensed. The church, which has enjoyed a big revival
since the demise of the Communist Soviet Union in 1991 and is
seeking more influence on secular life, cast the performance as
part of a sinister campaign by “anti-Russian forces”.

The women, who have been charged with hooliganism motivated
by religious hatred or hostility, have said many times they
meant no offence.

ANGER OVER CLOSE CHURCH-STATE TIES

In opening statements read by a defence lawyer, who
sometimes struggled with the handwritten texts, they said they
were protesting against Kirill’s political support for Putin and
had no animosity toward the church or the faithful.

“I have never had such feelings towards anyone in the
world,” Tolokonnikova said in her statement, describing the
charge of religious hatred as “wildly harsh”.

“We are not enemies of Christianity. The opinion of Orthodox
believers is important to us and we want all of them to be on
our side – on the side of anti-authoritarian civil activists,”
she said.

“Our performance contained no aggression toward the public –
only a desperate desire to change the situation in Russia for
the better.”

Pussy Riot burst onto the scene this winter with angry
lyrics and surprise performances, including one on Red Square
outside the Kremlin, that went viral on the Internet.

The band members see themselves as the avant-garde of a
disenchanted generation looking for creative ways to show its
dissatisfaction with Putin’s 12-year dominance of the political
landscape.

“I thought the church loved all its children, but it seems
the church loves only those children who love Putin,”
Alyokhina’s statement said.

The women looked thinner and paler than they did when they
were jailed following the performance in late February, shortly
before Putin, in power as president from 2000-2008 and then as
prime minister, won a six-year presidential term on March 4.

“She looks like she has been on a long hunger strike,”
Stanislav Samutsevich said of his daughter.

“I think this is like an inquisition, like mockery.”

A reporter on state-run TV presented a different picture,
focusing on occasional smiles and chuckles, by the women, who
whispered to each other as a prosecutor read the charges.

“Look at their faces; they are laughing and joking,” the
reporter said on the news, adding that a viewer might think they
were “continuing the action” they carried out at the cathedral.

Prosecutors asked for the trial, which was streamed live on
the Internet, to be closed to the public and the media, saying a
“rift in society” and emotions over the case put the defendants
and other participants at risk.

The judge rejected the motion but ordered live streaming
shut off during witness testimony and some other proceedings.

A group of conservative Russian writers called on Monday for
tough punishment. Kremlin opponents, rights activists and the
defendants say the charges are politically motivated.

The prosecution marked “the start of a campaign of
authoritarian, repressive measures aimed to … spread fear
among politically active citizens,” Samutsevich said in her
statement, read out by defence lawyer Violetta Volkova.

PROTEST MOVEMENT

The performance was part of a lively protest movement that
at its peak saw 100,000 people turn out for rallies in Moscow,
some of the largest in Russia since the Soviet Union’s demise.

The prosecution dismissed accusations of political motives.

“This is not a question of our parliamentary or presidential
elections, but a criminal case about … banal hooliganism with
a religious motive,” said Larisa Pavlova, who represents Lyubov
Sokologorskaya, one of several people who work at the cathedral
and are appearing at the trial as “victims” of Pussy Riot.

Sokologorskaya, who described herself as a “profound
believer”, said only clerics were allowed at the altar and that
the defendants’ bare shoulders, short skirts and “aggressive”
dance moves violated church rules and offended the faithful.

“When I talk about this event, my heart hurts. It hurts that
this is possible in our country,” she said. “Their punishment
must be adequate so that never again is such a thing repeated.”

The trial comes as Putin, who is 59 and has not ruled out
seeking another term in 2018, tries to forestall potential
challenges and rein in opponents who hope to reignite the street
protest movement this autumn.

On Monday, Putin signed a law enacting stricter punishment
for defamation. That follows recent laws tightening controls on
foreign-funded civil rights groups and sharply raising fines for
violations of public order at street rallies.

Opposition leaders including anti-corruption blogger Alexei
Navalny and socialite Ksenia Sobchak have had their homes
searched and faced repeated rounds of questioning over violence
at a protest on the eve of Putin’s inauguration on May 7.

Lawyers for Navalny say investigators are preparing to
charge him, in a separate case, with a crime punishable by up to
five years in prison. He was summoned to the federal
Investigative Committee on Monday but told to return on Tuesday.

Amnesty International said the Pussy Riot performers “must
be released immediately” and that the prison terms they face if
convicted are “wildly out of all proportion.”

“They dared to attack the two pillars of the modern Russian
establishment – the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church,” regional
programme director John Dalhuisen said in a statement.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev dismissed criticism of the
case in remarks published on Monday, saying the trial was a
“serious ordeal” for the defendants and their families but that
“one should be calm about it” and await the outcome.

Whether the group’s performance crossed the line from a
“moral misdemeanour” to a crime was “up to the court to decide,”
Medvedev, in London for the Olympics, told the Times newspaper
in an interview posted on the Russian government website.

Few Russians believe the country’s courts are independent,
however, and Medvedev acknowledged during his 2008-2012
presidency that they were subject to political pressure.

“The court’s decision will depend not on the law but on what
the Kremlin wants,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran human
rights activist who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group.

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