07.31.12

Russia: All Eyes on Vladimir Putin as Pussy Riot Trial Begins

Members of Pussy Riot, a group of three female activist musicians, face up to seven years in jail for their “punk prayer,” demonstration in Moscow’s main cathedral in February.

By Tom Parfitt   

Three members of Pussy Riot, the radical group of Russian feminist activists that has challenged the Kremlin, went on trial in Moscow on Monday in a case that will set the tone for Vladimir Putin's new presidency.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, and Maria Alekhina, 24, are facing up to seven years in jail for their "punk prayer".

The musicians stormed into the city's main cathedral in February and cavorted in front of the altar, shouting, "Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, drive out Putin!"

Delivered to court in handcuffs, the women denied a charge of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred", saying they were sorry to have offended Orthodox believers but innocent of wrongdoing.

The Pussy Riot group, whose members wear brightly coloured clothes and knitted balaclavas, was virtually unknown at the time of the protest at Christ the Saviour Cathedral, having carried out only a few minor "actions" including a guerrilla gig on Red Square.

But the three women's arrest in March brought them into the spotlight and chimed with the street protests against Mr Putin's rule that swept across Russia over the winter.

A video of the cathedral incident, in which believers in headscarves can be seen trying to usher the frantically dancing young women out of the church, was posted online with a soundtrack of heavy guitars and extra shouted lyrics laid over the top including: "Black cassock, golden epaulettes; all believers crawl and prostrate."

The trio, who were remanded in custody and denied access to their families, have since attracted worldwide support from stars such as Sting, Peter Gabriel and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who say their prosecution is excessive. Amnesty International has named the women prisoners of conscience.

Their trial is being seen as a weathervane of Russia's course after Mr Putin's return to the presidency in May. Critics already perceive a backsliding on democracy.

This summer the Kremlin-controlled parliament managed to push through a series of tough laws, including restrictions on foreign-funded non-governmental organisations and the internet, and legislation increasing the scope for libel prosecutions.

Security was tight on Monday as the Pussy Riot women were delivered to a dock made of steel and bullet-proof glass at Moscow's Khamovnichesky Court, in the same courtroom where jailed billionaire and fellow Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted in his latest trial in 2010.

In a passionate statement read to the court by a defence lawyer, Miss Tolokonnikova admitted that she and her friends may have committed an "ethical error" and were "very regretful" if churchgoers were insulted by the cathedral protest.

But she said their song was a reflection of many Russians' discontent at Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church, showing open support for Mr Putin as a candidate before the presidential election on March 4.

Pussy Riot's supporters say the church is a part of the corrupted nexus of business and politics that is trying to stifle dissent and preserve hard-line rule in Russia.

"We, like many of our compatriots, find unpleasant the insidiousness, deceit, venality, hypocrisy, acquisitiveness and lawlessness with which our current leadership and authorities are sinning," she said.

The "punk performance" was a targeted protest at the Patriarch propping up Mr Putin's "authoritarian and antifeminist course", she added.

Prosecutors said the group had "insulted in a sacrilegious manner the centuries-old foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church".

The trial has opened a wider debate about the role of the church and its leaders in Russian society. Patriarch Kirill appeared to refer to Pussy Riot when he said recently the church was "under attack by persecutors" and that "blasphemy, derision of the sacred is put forth as a lawful expression of human freedom".

A cathedral attendant who witnessed the protest at Christ the Saviour was summoned as a prosecution witness on Monday and said the women had "desecrated all that is holy to me".

Pussy Riot's supporters say the church is a part of the corrupted nexus of business and politics that is trying to stifle dissent and preserve hardline rule in Russia.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph before the opening of the trial, Nikolai Polozov, one of Pussy Riot's defence lawyers, said: "They went on to Putin's sacred ground and he's a vengeful person. I'm sure he gave the signal for this prosecution."

Mr Polozov said he expected a guilty verdict but could not predict the sentence. "It could be two months, it could be seven years," he said.

"If Putin is under pressure, say on Syria, or something else happens, he might use the girls as a distraction and earn some political capital by putting them away. And then they'll be sewing felt boots, like Khodorkovsky, in a prison colony." The trial continues.

Tom Parfitt covers Russia and the former Soviet Union from the Telegraph’s Moscow bureau. He has reported on the 2004 Beslan school siege, the 2008 war in Georgia and the growth of dissent in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Tom is especially interested in the North Caucasus region.