* Case into punk band's protest divides society
* Court could rule in the case this week
* Putin accused of cracking down on dissenters
By Gleb Bryanski
MOSCOW, Aug 5 Three young women from the punk
band Pussy Riot could face sentence this week in a trial over
their "protest prayer" in a church that has transfixed Russia
and opened President Vladimir Putin to new accusations of a
crackdown on dissent.
The first week of hearings divided the mainly Russian
Orthodox country. Some believers want tough sentences but many
others are calling for leniency, even though few approve of the
unsanctioned performance at the altar of Moscow's main church.
The trial for hooliganism, punishable by up to seven years
in jail, resumes on Monday in the same Moscow courtroom where
oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky faced the second of two trials
after defying Putin by taking an interest in politics.
His 13-year sentence has for Putin critics become a symbol
of political pressure on the court system, and defence lawyers
fear Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, and
Maria Alyokhina, 24, are not getting a fair hearing.
"This trial will define the development of the country as a
whole. Either we move toward 'Orthodox sharia law' or remain in
a situation of 'velvet authoritarianism'," defence lawyer
Nikolai Polozov said.
The trial started on July 30 and lasted late into the
evening each day until Friday, with only brief breaks for the
defendants - confined to a courtroom cage - and lawyers.
On one day, Alyokhina felt ill and received medical
attention, but the defence's complaints that the trio were being
deprived of sleep and food were ignored.
The defence team says the court hopes to finish the trial
quickly, while many Russians' attention is diverted by summer
vacations, and that a verdict is likely this week. Few people in
Russia have much faith in the independence of the judiciary.
Putin faces international condemnation over the trial, and
the organisers of the biggest protests since he rose to power in
2000 see it as part of a crackdown that includes a tightening of
control over foreign-funded lobby groups, a toughening of rules
governing the Internet and a sharp rise in fines for protesters.
Putin, who began a six-year term in May, said in London on
Aug. 2 that there was "nothing good" in the trio's performance,
in which they burst into Christ the Saviour Cathedral on Feb. 21
and urged the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out!".
But Putin said the three women "should not be judged too
harshly" over the protest, which they said was not intended to
offend believers but to highlight the close relationship between
the church and state.
LAWYERS FEEL "CHEATED"
The band's lawyers initially seemed heartened by his remarks
but later suggested they were intended to appease an
"Putin cheated us yet again," Polozov said on the social
networking site Twitter on Friday. "The court continues
pressurising the defendants and ourselves."
The trial has mixed drama and farce, dividing Russian
society into those who see the young women and heroes and others
who see the three as blasphemers who should be punished.
"They spat on my soul," Lyubov Sokologorskaya, who sells
candles and icons at the cathedral told the court on Monday,
complaining that she could see under the women's skirts when
they kicked their legs up in "aggressive" dance moves.
Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich have often looked
tired and grim, but at other moments burst into laughter - such
as when Judge Marina Syrova read out obscenities from their
Some guards turned to the wall to conceal their laughter
when defence lawyer Violetta Volkova said an expression used by
the band in a song was not meant as an insult for church goers.
"This expression is a mere translation of the English 'Holy
shit!', which, according to the Cambridge dictionary, means
'unpleasant surprise'," Volkova said, adding that the expression
was often used in programmes broadcast on Russian television.
Volkova also questioned the prosecution's references to
rules on church behaviour set by a Church Council held in
Constantinople in 692, saying that the same council prohibited
Christians from taking a bath with Jews.
The complaints of the defence team, who at times shouted at
the judge, have often been met by silence from the prosecutors,
who rolled their eyes in disbelief at some of their motions.
"They are sticking their necks into the noose themselves,"
one member of the prosecution team told another while discussing
the defence team's plea for the judge to read out all 2,500
pages of the prosecution's case.
A group of Russian journalists published an open letter on
Sunday complaining they were pushed and bullied at the court by
black-uniformed bailiffs who carry automatic weapons designed
for combat in confined spaces.