MOSCOW (Reuters) - 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 misdemeanor" to a crime was "up to the court to decide," Medvedev, in London for the Olympics, said.
A defense 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."
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 civil activists."
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 program 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.
Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff