Russian court refuses to free Pussy Riot members

MOSCOW Wed Jun 20, 2012 9:42pm IST

A woman reads a leaflet during a protest rally in support of the detained members of the Russian all-girl punk rock band Pussy Riot in Prague June 19, 2012. REUTERS/David W Cerny

A woman reads a leaflet during a protest rally in support of the detained members of the Russian all-girl punk rock band Pussy Riot in Prague June 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/David W Cerny

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Three members of Russian women's punk band Pussy Riot, who derided President Vladimir Putin in a protest in Moscow's main cathedral, were denied bail on Wednesday despite calls for their release by hundreds of supporters at the hearing.

Police hauled away more than 15 people when a crowd of about 300 whistled, chanted "Freedom" and unfurled banners demanding the released of the band members who have been held in pre-trial detention since early March.

Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich face up to seven years in jail for hooliganism after storming the altar of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral on February 21 in short dresses and colorful masks to sing a "punk prayer" that offended some Russian Orthodox believers.

Their rendition of "Holy Mother, throw Putin out!" was a protest against the close relationship between the Church and Putin, whom it backed in the presidential election he won in March.

The act was part of a protest movement against Putin's 12-year dominance that at its peak saw 100,000 people take part in winter street protests in Moscow. Their arrest has drawn widespread outrage among activists and human rights groups.

Amnesty International urged Russia in April to free the women, criticizing the severity of the response by authorities.

But in a packed courtroom the judge extended their jailing until July 24 after prosecutors argued they should be kept behind bars to prevent them fleeing abroad or planning another performance.

"NOT GUILTY"

"I am entirely convinced I am not guilty. It is strange they are keeping me here so long," said Alyokhina, who wore a beige dress and clutched a bible at the hearing.

Sitting next to her cage in the courtroom was her mother who is caring for Alyokhina's 5-year-old son while she is in jail.

Brought in one by one for separate back-to-back hearings, Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich looked calm, smiling to photographers and greeting friends and family through the bars of the courtroom defendant's cage.

Defense lawyers for the jailed women see the case as political and said they filed an appeal against their detention to the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday.

"(The documents) try not to make it look like a political case but focus on offence for religious feelings, and they also speak of inciting hatred," Violetta Volkova, lawyer for Samutsevich, told Reuters outside the courtroom.

"But for us, it's obviously political. And when somebody says there are no political prisoners in the country, we feel like laughing."

The Church's support for Putin, whose rule has been described by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church as a "miracle of God", has angered many members of the anti-Putin protest movement that has sprung up in the past seven months.

But some Orthodox believers have called for tough punishment for the women over an act they regard as blasphemous.

(Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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