Pussy Riot trio defiant as 'hooliganism' trial begins

Three members of punk group claim charges mark start of campaign of repression

One of the most talked-about trials in Russia for years began in a Moscow courtroom yesterday, with three girls from the punk group Pussy Riot facing charges of hooliganism inspired by religious hatred that could see them jailed for up to seven years.

Their crime was to burst into Moscow's biggest cathedral in February and perform a shrieky key punk tune calling on the Virgin Mary to kick Vladimir Putin out of office. Three of the five women involved were arrested two weeks later, and after being refused bail, have been held in prison. The powerful Orthodox Church has refused to call for clemency for the women, and while many Russians found their stunt distasteful, the harsh response has brought public opinion round to their side.

After lengthy preliminary hearings, the trial proper started yesterday. "I thought the church loved all its children," said Maria Alekhina, 24, in her opening statement. "But it seems the church loves only those children who love Putin." She, together with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, pleaded not guilty to the charges. The trio looked pale but in good spirits, and were in combative mood, frequently prompting the judge to interject and silence them. "I can't say whether I admit the charges or not as I don't understand the charges," said Ms Alekhina at one point, to the frustration of the judge, who scolded her and suggested she was being deliberately obtuse. "You have a higher education. Do you speak Russian?" the judge asked angrily. The prosecution has said the three women are agents of Satan and are the tip of an iceberg of nefarious interests bent on destroying the Russian state.

Yesterday the women admitted to making an "ethical mistake" but denied any criminal activity.

Lawyers for the women rejected the charges as "absurd" and said there had been numerous procedural violations in the build-up to the trial. The court has rejected most of the motions the defence has put forward, including a request to call Mr Putin and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church as witnesses in the case. The defence says that harsh words from Mr Putin about the stunt could prejudice the court, as well as comments the Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave the day before the hearing started, suggesting that in other countries the punishment for such an act would be even harsher.

The trial comes nearly three months after Mr Putin returned to the Kremlin amid large street protests. His response to the protest movement has been crackdown rather than compromise. Laws have been introduced that increase the fines for unsanctioned demonstrations and force all NGOs that receive any grants from abroad to identify themselves as "foreign agents".

In a new development, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who has targetted the allegedly corrupt dealings of government officials and became one of the de facto leaders of the protests, was called into the Investigative Committee yesterday to answer questions about alleged misdeeds when he worked as a consultant for a regional governor several years ago. He said charges against him were due to be announced this morning, and insists he did no wrong and that the investigation against him was politically motivated.

In her opening statement at the Pussy Riot trial, Ms Samutsevich said: "I see [the charges] as the start of a campaign of authoritarian repressive measures aimed at lowering the political activity of citizens. Its aim is create a sense of fear among those citizens who take active part in politics."

The case continues today.

Punk vs Putin: the three defendants

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Born in Norlisk, the 23-year-old is the youngest of the three. She studied philosophy at university in Moscow and is part of dissident art group "War", which staged a "fertility rite" in 2008 at Moscow museum mocking Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Maria Alekhina

The 24-year-old, who studies at the Institute of Journalism and Creative Writing in Moscow, is an active member of the Green Peace Council of Russia. She has protested against illegal felling in Krasnodar and in support of conservation projects at Lake Baikal.

Yekaterina Samutsevich

The eldest of the group (she turns 30 next month), she studied engineering at the Moscow Institute of Power and Engineering and later went on to work in a research lab developing software for submarines and missiles, according to Kommersant.

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