'Pussy Riot' punk band left to languish in jail for Putin protest

Trial of feminists polarises Russian society. Roland Oliphant reports in Moscow

Three members of a feminist punk band arrested for singing a protest song in Moscow's main Orthodox church must remain in custody, a court ruled yesterday.

The trio, part of a collective called Pussy Riot, were told they would be kept in detention for a further six months, until at least 12 January. The case involving Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, 29, has split Russian society. The women have been in prison since they were arrested in February for performing an impromptu rendition of a song "Blessed Virgin, Mother Mary, Drive Putin Out!". They sang the "punk prayer" at the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour two weeks before the presidential election that returned Mr Putin to the Kremlin. They could be jailed for seven years if they are convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred".

Rejecting a defence plea for their release on the first day of their trial, Judge Victor Danilkin ordered Ms Tolokonnikova, Ms Alyokhina and Ms Samutsevich to stay in jail, extending their time in detention to 10 months. Their lawyers said they would appeal. Mark Feigin, acting for the three women, said he had asked to summon witnesses including Mr Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Five women took part in the prank, dressed in the trademark coloured balaclavas worn by the Pussy Riot collective. Ms Tolokonnikova, Ms Alekhina and Ms Samutsevich were arrested a fortnight later after a video of the stunt went viral on YouTube.

On Thursday, a lawyer for one of the cathedral guards, who claims to have been a "victim" of the women's alleged hooliganism, accused Pussy Riot of being supported by the same "Satanic forces" that carried out the 11 September terrorist attack in New York in 2001.

The lawyer, Mikhail Kuznetsov, told Moskovskie Novosti his client "had suffered deeply" and lost sleep as a result of the incident. Mr Kuznetsov described the punk band as the "tip of an iceberg of extremists, trying to break down the thousand year edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church by creating a schism, guiding the flock through trickery and cunning not to God, but to Satan". He added: "Behind this stands real enemies of our state, and Church."

Pussy Riot and their supporters say they targeted the cathedral, on the banks of the Moscow River upstream from the Kremlin, because it is the church where Mr Putin and other dignitaries attend services, and symbolises what they see as an unhealthy alliance between the Church hierarchy and the state.

The defendants are accused of a "wilfully conscious and carefully planned action to humiliate the feelings and beliefs of many followers of the Orthodox Christian religion and diminish the spiritual foundations of the state". Their requests for bail have repeatedly been denied, despite two of the women having young children, and the case has become a controversy.

Cultural figures including the actress Chulpan Khamatova, who was criticised for publicly backing Mr Putin during the election campaign, have voiced support for the prisoners. Boris Akunin, a popular crime author, has called the "state's malice" towards the group "disgusting"

Not everyone feels the same way, however. One orthodox member of the Moscow city council said the women should be deprived of parental rights.

About a dozen opponents and supporters of the band jostled for space with bailiffs outside the court yesterday. Two pro-Pussy Riot protesters were arrested.

Those looking for political motives behind the prosecution have noted that in 2010 Judge Danilkin also presided over another highly politicised trial – that of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky – in the same court.

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