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Pussy Riot Trial Over Putin Altar Protest Begins

- Common Dreams staff

Hundreds packed into a Moscow courtroom Monday for the start of the trial of three members of punk rock band Pussy Riot, whose detention for a performance of a "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ Savior Cathedral has become a cause celebre in the West and split society in Russia.

Members of "Pussy Riot", Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (c), Maria Alyokhina (r) and Yekaterina Samutsevich, sit behind bars before a court hearing in Moscow, July 20, 2012. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, smiled as police brought them from a van into the court, waving their handcuffed arms behind their backs.

The three women have pleaded not guilty to charges of hooliganism. The charge, which carries a potential seven-year sentence, stems from the February performance which included lyrics criticizing President Vladimir Putin. "Mother Mary please drive Putin away," the band sang, their faces covered in neon masks.

In a statement to the court, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said that the group was wrong to hold a punk performance in a place of religious worship, calling it an "ethical error," according to Interfax.

The other band members criticized the government and the church, saying their prosecution was taking place under pressure from church authorities.

"They dared to attack the two pillars of modern Russian establishment -- the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church."
- Amnesty International
Yekaterina Samutsevich said she saw the hooliganism charges brought against them as part of a repressive crackdown aimed at "spreading feelings of fear among those actively engaging with politics."

"The aim of our performance was to attract the attention of the Russian clergy and Patriarch Kirill. We, as representatives of our generation, are puzzled by his [Kirill's] actions and pronouncements. We wanted and still want dialogue," she said, Interfax reported.

The three female suspects have been in custody since early March, and Moscow courts have extended their detention on three occasions. According to a July 23 ruling, the three can be kept in custody until at least Jan. 12 of next year.

Amnesty International said Monday the trial "never should have taken place."

John Dalhuisen of Amnesty said the singers had been making "a legitimate protest -- this is not a criminal offense. They must be released immediately. They dared to attack the two pillars of modern Russian establishment -- the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church. While many may have found their act offensive, the sentence of up to seven years in prison they may expect on the charges of hooliganism is wildly out of all proportion," he said.

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Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, center, a member of feminist punk group Pussy Riot is escorted to a court room in Moscow, Russia, Monday, July 30, 2012. Three members of the band are facing trial for performing a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin from a pulpit of Moscow's main cathedral before Russia's presidential election in March, in which he won a third term. (AP/Mikhail Metzel)

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Video of Pussy Riot's February 2012 performance inside the Russian Orthodox Church's main cathedral which led to their arrests:

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