* Pussy Riot members on trial over altar protest
* Case seen as test of Putin's treatment of dissent
* Protest highlighted close Putin-church relationship
By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW, July 30 Three members of a Russian
female punk band went on trial on Monday, facing up to seven
years in jail for protesting against Vladimir Putin inside a
Moscow cathedral, a prosecution they said was aimed at spreading
fear and silencing dissent.
The trial of the women from the band "Pussy Riot" is being
seen as a test of the longtime leader's tolerance of opposition
at the start of his third presidential term.
The trio were charged with "hooliganism motivated by
religious hatred or hostility" for a performance in February
when they entered the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, ascended the
altar and called on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out!"
Conservative writers and church leaders have demanded harsh
punishment, while civil rights groups say a long prison sentence
would be out of proportion with the crime, and prove that Putin
is determined to crush opposing voices.
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and
Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, were brought to Moscow's Khamovniki
court for Russia's highest-profile trial since another opponent
of Putin, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was convicted
of embezzlement in 2010 in the same courtroom.
Supporters chanted "Girls, we're with you!" and "Victory!"
as the women, each handcuffed by the wrist to a female officer,
were escorted from a police van into the courthouse.
The group's members have consistently maintained that their
protest was political and that they meant no harm to Christians.
"We did not want to offend anybody," Tolokonnikova said from
the same metal and clear-plastic courtroom cage where
Khodorkovsky sat with his business partner during their trial.
"Our motives were exclusively political."
In opening statements read out by their lawyers, the women
defended their actions and denounced the prosecution. The case
marked "the start of a campaign of authoritarian, repressive
measures aimed to ... spread fear among politically active
citizens," Samutsevich said in her statement.
Pussy Riot burst onto the scene this winter with angry
lyrics and surprise performances, including one on Red Square
outside the Kremlin, that went viral on the Internet.
The band members see themselves as the avant-garde of a
disenchanted generation looking for creative ways to show
dissatisfaction with Putin's 12-year dominance of politics.
The performance in the cathedral was designed to highlight
the close relationship between the dominant Russian Orthodox
Church and former KGB officer Putin, then prime minister, whose
campaign to return to the presidency in a March election was
backed by the leader of the church, Patriarch Kirill.
The church, which has enjoyed a big revival since the demise
of the Communist Soviet Union in 1991 and is seeking more
influence on secular life, has described the performance as part
of a sinister campaign by "anti-Russian forces".
The prosecution dismissed accusations of political motives.
"This is not a question of our parliamentary or presidential
elections, but a criminal case about ... banal hooliganism with
a religious motive," said Larisa Pavlova, who represents Lyubov
Sokologorskaya, one of several people who work at the cathedral
and are appearing at the trial as "victims" of Pussy Riot.
Sokologorskaya, who described herself as a "profound
believer", said only clerics were allowed at the altar and that
the defendants' bare shoulders, short skirts and "aggressive"
dance moves violated church rules and offended the faithful.
"When I talk about this event, my heart hurts. It hurts that
this is possible in our country," she said. "Their punishment
must be adequate so that never again is such a thing repeated."
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev dismissed criticism of the
case. The trial was a "serious ordeal" for the defendants and
their families but "one should be calm about it" and await the
outcome, he told Britain's Times newspaper in an interview
posted on the Russian government's website.
Whether the group's performance crossed the line from a
"moral misdemeanour" to a crime was "up to the court to decide,"
Medvedev, in London for the Olympics, said.
A defence lawyer for the musicians, Nikolai Polozov, said
Medvedev's comments were aimed at putting pressure on the court
to "punish blasphemers": "The court is being very one-sided,
slanted towards the prosecution, which of course in our view is
motivated exclusively by political bias in this case."
ANGER OVER CLOSE CHURCH-STATE TIES
The women looked thinner and paler than they did when they
were jailed following the performance in late February, shortly
before Putin, in power as president from 2000-2008 and then as
prime minister, won a six-year presidential term on March 4.
"She looks like she has been on a long hunger strike,"
Stanislav Samutsevich said of his daughter. "I think this is
like an inquisition, like mockery."
A reporter on state-run TV presented a different picture,
focusing on occasional smiles and chuckles, by the women, who
whispered to each other as a prosecutor read the charges.
"Look at their faces; they are laughing and joking," the
reporter said on the news, adding that a viewer might think they
were "continuing the action" they carried out at the cathedral.
In their opening statements the women said they were
protesting against Kirill's political support for Putin and had
no animosity towards the church or the faithful.
"I have never had such feelings towards anyone in the
world," Tolokonnikova said in her statement, describing the
charge of religious hatred as "wildly harsh".
"Our performance contained no aggression towards the public
- only a desperate desire to change the situation in Russia for
the better," she said. "We are not enemies of Christianity. The
opinion of Orthodox believers is important to us and we want all
of them to be on our side - on the side of anti-authoritarian
Alyokhina's statement said: "I thought the church loved all
its children, but it seems the church loves only those children
who love Putin."
Prosecutors asked for the trial, which was streamed live on
the Internet, to be closed to the public and the media. The
judge rejected the motion but ordered live streaming shut off
during witness testimony and some other proceedings.
Amnesty International said the Pussy Riot performers "must
be released immediately" and that the prison terms they face if
convicted are "wildly out of all proportion."
"They dared to attack the two pillars of the modern Russian
establishment - the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church," regional
programme director John Dalhuisen said in a statement.
The performance was part of a lively protest movement that
at its peak saw 100,000 people turn out for rallies in Moscow,
some of the largest in Russia since the Soviet Union's demise.
The trial comes as Putin, who is 59 and has not ruled out
seeking another term in 2018, tries to rein in opponents who
hope to reignite the street protest movement this autumn.
On Monday, Putin signed a law enacting stricter punishment
for defamation. That follows recent laws tightening controls on
foreign-funded civil rights groups and sharply raising fines for
violations of public order at street rallies.
Opposition leaders including anti-corruption blogger Alexei
Navalny and socialite Ksenia Sobchak have had their homes
searched and faced repeated rounds of questioning over violence
at a protest on the eve of Putin's inauguration on May 7.
Lawyers for Navalny say investigators are preparing to
charge him, in a separate case, with a crime punishable by up to
five years in prison. He was summoned to the federal
Investigative Committee on Monday and told to return on Tuesday.