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Pussy Riot band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left), Yekaterina Samutsevich (centre) and Maria Aliokhina (right) may face three years in detention.
Pussy Riot band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left), Yekaterina Samutsevich (centre) and Maria Aliokhina (right) may face three years in detention.

Pussy Riot punk protest women face jail

Prosecutor demands three-year jail terms for three female punk rockers who stormed the altar of a Moscow cathedral and sang a 'protest prayer' against the Russian Orthodox Church's links to Vladimir Putin.

MOSCOW // A state prosecutor yesterday demanded a three-year jail term for three women from the punk-rock band Pussy Riot.

He said they had abused God when they stormed the altar of a Moscow cathedral and sang a "protest prayer" against the Russian Orthodox Church's close links to Vladimir Putin.

The case, in which the three are charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, has outraged many Russian Orthodox believers.

But it has also caused an international outcry and focused attention on a crackdown on dissent since Mr Putin returned to the presidency for a six-year term on May 7.

Musicians including Madonna, Sting and Red Hot Chili Peppers have appealed for leniency.

"I hope they do not have to serve seven years in jail. That would be a tragedy," the US singer Madonna, in Moscow to perform a concert, said on Monday.

"Obviously I believe in freedom of speech and I'm against censorship, so I hope that the judge is lenient with them and that they are freed soon."

The federal prosecutor Alexei Nikiforov said in closing arguments yesterday, watched by the women's lawyers, friends and family in the tiny court, that the women showed "religious hatred and enmity" when they burst into the church.

"There was real mockery and humiliation directed at the people in the church."

The defendants looked pale and tired as they sat silently in a glass and metal courtroom cage, two of them scribbling notes.

Their lawyer said the demand for a prison sentence was disproportionate and shameful.

Mr Nikiforov did not press the court for the maximum seven-year sentence. Mr Putin said last week that Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, had done "nothing good" but should not be judged too harshly.

The prosecutor ignored pleas by the opposition and human rights groups not to seek jail terms over the profanity-laced protest, in which the trio, wearing balaclavas and short dresses, burst into the Christ the Saviour Cathedral and belted out a song urging the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr Putin.

"Using swear words in a church is an abuse of God," Mr Nikiforov said.

He dismissed the defendants' argument that the protest was not intended to offend believers and was aimed at highlighting the church's support for Mr Putin.

"The insult is not to Putin but to the social group of Orthodox Christian believers," he said.

Pussy Riot, an all-women group, formed last October in protest against Putin's domination of Russia and his plan to return to the Kremlin.

The band members see themselves as part of a protest movement that last winter organised the biggest demonstrations since the former KGB spy first rose to power in 2000, at times attracting crowds in Moscow of 100,000.

"This is a nightmare. Blood is pouring from my ears," defence lawyer Nikolai Polozov said after the demand for jail terms.

In a country where few believe in the independence of the judiciary, the Kremlin could hope to win support among some of its critics if the final sentences are relatively lenient. But this could offend church leaders.

It is not clear when sentence will be passed but it could be anytime this week.

The trio's protest also took aim at Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and infuriated church leaders who have described Putin's rule as a "miracle of God" and described the women as doing the work of the devil.

Opposition leaders say the trial is also part of a wider crackdown intended to silence Putin's critics and which also includes tightening checks on foreign-funded lobby groups, new controls on the Internet and big fines for protesters.

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