Punk trio Pussy Riot go on trial in test of Putin's tolerance

 

Three members of an all-girl punk band who took part in a protest against Vladimir Putin at the altar of Russia's main cathedral have gone on trial today in a case seen as a test of the President's tolerance of dissent.

Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, of the group Pussy Riot, were jailed in February after performing a song that called on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out".

Governments and rights groups said the trial might show that Mr Putin was becoming loss tolerant of dissenting voices.

The trio were led into court in handcuffs this morning and taken into a holding area made of bullet-proof glass where they answered questions from the judge regarding their education, citizenship and the birthdays of their children.

Their arrest on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility has divided Russia.

They pleaded not guilty to the official charges of hooliganism driven by "religious hatred."

Tolokonnikova said she felt sorry if some of the believers felt insulted by their act, but that they did not mean to offend anyone. It was not clear how long the trial might last, but a court has recently ruled that the women should be kept in custody for another six month.

Two other participants in the performance have not been identified and remain at large.

Supporters claim the case is a reflection of the Russian government's intolerance towards opponents.

But the Russian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill has called their actions "blasphemy".

Prominent figures in Russia's arts scene have urged the authorities to release the band-members.

Last week artist Petr Pavlensky sewed his mouth together in a gruesome show of support for them (video, above).

Mr Putin has avoided comment on the case, but many commentators believe that he has given his blessing to the prosecution as part of a crackdown on dissent following unprecedented protests in Moscow against his 12-year rule. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that was up to the court to issue a verdict.

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