Anti-Putin activists face seven years in jail for 'punk prayer'
THREE members of Pussy Riot, the radical group of Russian feminist activists that has challenged the Kremlin, went on trial in Moscow yesterday in a case that is likely to set the tone for Vladimir Putin's new presidency.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22), Yekaterina Samutsevich (29) and Maria Alekhina (24) are facing up to seven years in jail for their "punk prayer".
The musicians stormed into the city's main cathedral in February and cavorted in front of the altar, shouting, "Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, drive out Putin!"
Delivered to court in handcuffs, the women denied a charge of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred", saying that they were sorry to have offended Orthodox believers but claimed that they innocent of wrongdoing.
The Pussy Riot group, whose members wear brightly coloured clothes and knitted balaclavas, was virtually unknown at the time of the protest at Christ the Saviour Cathedral, having carried out only a few minor "actions".
But the arrest of the three women in March brought them into the spotlight and chimed with the street protests against Mr Putin's rule that swept across Russia over the winter.
A video of the cathedral incident, in which believers in headscarves can be seen trying to usher the frantically dancing young women out of the church, was posted online with a soundtrack of heavy guitars and extra shouted lyrics laid over the top including: "Black cassock, golden epaulettes; all believers crawl and prostrate."
The three, who were remanded in custody and denied access to their families, have since attracted worldwide support from stars such as Sting, Peter Gabriel and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who say their prosecution is excessive. Amnesty International has named the women prisoners of conscience.
Their trial is being seen as a weathervane of Russia's course after Mr Putin's return to the presidency in May. Critics already perceive a backsliding on democracy.
This summer, the Kremlin-controlled parliament managed to push through a series of tough laws, including restrictions on foreign-funded non-governmental organisations and the internet, and legislation increasing the scope for libel prosecutions.
Security was tight yesterday as the Pussy Riot women were delivered to a dock made of steel and bullet-proof glass at Moscow's Khamovnichesky Court, in the same courtroom where the jailed billionaire and fellow Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted in his latest trial in 2010.
In a statement read to the court by a defence lawyer, Ms Tolokonnikova admitted that she and her friends may have committed an "ethical error" and were "very regretful" if churchgoers were insulted by the cathedral protest.
But she said their song was a reflection of many Russians' discontent at Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church, showing open support for Mr Putin as a candidate before the presidential election.
"We find unpleasant the insidiousness, deceit, venality, hypocrisy and lawlessness with which our current leadership and authorities are sinning," she said.
Prosecutors said the group had "insulted in a sacrilegious manner the centuries-old foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church". The trial has opened a wider debate about the role of the church and its leaders in Russian society. (© Daily Telegraph, London)