Pussy Riot trial heads towards a shabby ending

Judge will tomorrow deliver the verdict but it has already been decided by the Kremlin

Moscow

At three o’clock tomorrow afternoon, Judge Marina Syrova, a middle-aged woman with the air of an irate schoolteacher, will enter a small, shabby courtroom in central Moscow and give her verdict in the case of Pussy Riot.

It will be the culmination of what started as the little-noticed YouTube video of a punk-infused political prank back in February, but has rapidly snowballed into one of the most notorious court cases in post-Soviet Russian history.

Lawyers for the three women on trial, Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, say that there is no chance that Judge Syrova will give a not-guilty verdict, and so the eyes of the world will be on how long the jail sentences she hands down will be. They have already spent nearly six months in pre-trial detention for their 30-second performance in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, which was later dubbed over with the lyrics “Virgin Mary, chase Putin out.”

The prosecutors demanded a three-year sentence in a trial that was rushed through with little chance for defence witnesses to appear, and was plagued what lawyers say were countless procedural violations. “The verdict will be guilty, and our defendants will get between one and three years,” said lawyer Mark Feygin yesterday. “Authorities and the Kremlin will decide, and not the court itself.”

Less than one per cent of cases that come to court in Russia end in not-guilty verdicts, and there is even less chance of that happening in a case which has obvious political overtones and has attracted comments from leading Russian politicians.

The main hope for a short sentence comes from the fact that Mr Putin, when quizzed about the case on a visit to London, appeared to backtrack from earlier criticism, and said that the women should “not be judged too harshly”. Instead of asking for the maximum seven year penalty possible for the crime of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” that the three women are on trial for, the prosecutors asked for three.

Russian magazine The New Times yesterday quoted a former colleague of the presiding judge saying that there was no chance at all of an innocent verdict. “That is total fantasy, there are rules of the game; if the verdict was innocent it would be annulled immediately by another judge anyway.”

The case has caused widespread international condemnation, with a whole host of musicians and politicians offering their support to the trio. Madonna, who last week played a concert in Moscow, donned a balaclava and voiced words of support, leading the Russian Deputy Prime Minister to call her a “whore” on Twitter. The Mayor of Reykjavik, Jon Gnarr, took things a step further, using a gay pride rally in the city to parade through the city in a pink dress and balaclava, miming the words to a Pussy Riot song, atop a float emblazoned with the words “Free Pussy Riot”.

In Russia itself, the response to the case has been somewhat muted, with many famous musicians staying quiet when asked, and some supporting a harsh punishment for the women. Russia’s opposition movement initially wanted little to do with the protest act, but the harshness of the punishment has rallied sympathy for the women, as have their eloquent performances in the closing speeches of the trial last week, which has led many to compare them to Soviet-era dissidents.

The Pussy Riot case, with its global attraction, has become the most visible part of a broader crackdown on dissent since Mr Putin returned to the Kremlin in May. A series of laws have been passed, the most disturbing of which forces any organisation that receives funding from abroad to declare itself a “foreign agent” on its website and all materials. Additionally, 16 people remain in jail having been arrested for disturbances during a protest against Mr Putin on the eve of his inauguration. Without the international celebrity status that Pussy Riot has attained, their trials are likely to proceed more quietly, but some of them face up to 10 years in prison.

The opposition has called on supporters to gather outside the courtroom tomorrow in a show of support for Pussy Riot, and yesterday morning, a group of around 20 protestors gathered outside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, donned Pussy Riot-style balaclavas and held up placards with letters on that combined to make the Biblical phrase “Blessed are the merciful”. They were quickly set upon by the cathedral guards, who ripped off their balaclavas and attempted to detain the protestors. Some of the plain-clothes men also attacked journalists and broke photo equipment. At least two of the protestors were taken to police stations, though it was unclear if they would be charged with an offence.

“Beating people up for quoting the gospels on the steps of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral – priceless,” wrote lawyer Nikolai Polozov on his Twitter feed yesterday.

Rallies are planned in support of Pussy Riot in many cities across the globe tomorrow, and Amnesty International plans a protest outside the Russian Embassy in London this morning.

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