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Three on trial for anti-Putin protest

Maria Alyokhina, a member of female punk band “Pussy Riot”, waves as she is escorted by police to a court in Moscow today.

MOSCOW — Three women who protested against Vladimir Putin in a “punk prayer” on the altar of Russia’s main cathedral went on trial today in a case seen as a test of the longtime leader’s treatment of dissent during a new presidential term.

The women from the band Pussy Riot face up to seven years in prison for an unsanctioned performance in February in which they entered Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, ascended the altar and called on the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out”.

Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, were brought to Moscow’s Khamovniki court for Russia’s highest-profile trial since former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2010, for a second time, in the same courtroom where the Pussy Riot trial began.

Supporters chanted “Girls, we’re with you!” and “Victory!” as the women, each handcuffed by the wrist to a female officer, were led from a white and blue police van into the courthouse through a side entrance. Streets around the court, on a high Moscow River embankment, were closed.

They were led into a metal and clear-plastic courtroom cage, where they milled and spoke with lawyers as preparations began. Tolokonnikova, in a blue chequered shirt, lowered her head to speak through a small opening in the enclosure. Two pairs of handcuffs hung at the ready just beside her face.

“We did not want to offend anybody,” Tolokonnikova said, speaking to a defence lawyer who stood outside the enclosure. “We admit our political guilt, but not legal guilt.”

The stunt 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 clearly, if informally, by the leader of the church, Patriarch Kirill.

The protest offended many believers and enraged Kirill. The church, which has enjoyed a big revival since the demise of the officially atheist Communist Soviet Union in 1991 and is seeking more influence on secular life, cast the performance as part of a sinister campaign by “anti-Russian forces”. (Reuters)

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