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Russia's 'Pussy Riot' on trial for cathedral protest (updated)

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July 30, 2012, 6:06 p.m. |

Three women who protested against Vladimir Putin in a "punk prayer" on the altar of Russia's main cathedral went on trial on Monday.
© AFP

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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AL BALA July 31, 2012, 5:56 a.m.    

However, the arrests began in Forgiveness Sunday before Lent.

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If all this apply to anti-Christian statements of many prominent figures of the ROC, it is a very sad situation for the prospects of the church. For example, the head of synodnoho with relations of church and society ROC Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, in an interview "the Russian news service" publicly called for war against Russia's neighbors and offered to take the army of orange opposition. According to Chaplin, Russia must "build a powerful military presence" in all areas where "people are asked to protect against orange experiments, various color revolutions." In his opinion, do not be afraid of war and fighting. "Even if Russia will need to participate in hostilities, this day should not be afraid. Army must finally give a real job. Networked hamsters could easily be sent to the current war. Those who survive will probably be people "- said Chaplin.

Thus, the prior of the church of St. Philip Sevastopol UOC-MP, Archpriest Viacheslav Kostenko said recently that the congregation should honor Generalissimo Joseph Stalin, because he "graduated with honors from religious school and studied at the seminary, so I had a correct notion of spirituality."

Earlier in the church near St. Petersburg was an icon depicting Stalin. Eustathius Abbot said, "What would you say, but for me Stalin - the father. And I do not want to betray him. "

Indeed, in regions where the dominant Moscow Patriarchate, the level of social diseases (alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, AIDS, etc.) is much higher than the rest of the country. That in itself puts a special issue of canonicity.

Also, the UOC-MP is not so long ago sounded the known history of drunken driving priest of the temple in Troeschina Odessa diocese a priest who took money from rich men and spent on prostitutes.

Some critics say the Moscow Patriarchate that in fact he was not founded by Prince Vladimir or even Metropolitan Jonah in 1448, but in reality by Joseph Stalin, 1943, resulting in restoration of the Patriarchate.

Recently the Arab League suspended the membership of Syria and threatened to withdraw envoys from the death of thousands in protests against President Assad, as patriarch of Moscow the same day visited Syria and wished success to local authorities.

The fact that even in 1801 the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church forbade the construction of churches in the Ukrainian style and introduced rules in church construction in the Moscow Synodal Apostolic style, which was formed under significant influence of Kazan, Astrakhan tent architecture.

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