Russian female punk rock band trial sets tone for Putin presidency

Thu Aug 16, 2012 12:39pm EDT
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By Timothy Heritage

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Whatever verdict a Russian court passes on Friday on the women from punk band Pussy Riot who taunted the Kremlin from a church altar, President Vladimir Putin has signaled he is no more willing than before to brook dissent as he begins a third term.

The trial has caused an international outcry and crushed any Western and opposition hopes that the former KGB officer might choose to allow more political freedom and give courts more independence in the first months of his new presidency.

"Essentially, it is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial here. It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation which is on trial," Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one the three defendants, said in her closing statement last week.

Tolokonnikova, 22, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, face up to three years in jail for bursting into Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in ski masks, short skirts and bright tights and belting out a "punk prayer" protesting against Putin's close ties with the Orthodox Church.

Judge Marina Syrova will start reading the verdict at 3 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Friday and could hand down a sentence by the evening on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

The three women, confined to a glass courtroom cage during the trial, say the protest on February 21 was part of a broad movement against Putin's decision to return to the Kremlin and extend his effective 12-year rule as president or prime minister for at least six more years. His new term began on May 7.

They deny intending to offend believers and say they are victims of a crackdown on dissent in which the Kremlin has rushed through legislation to tighten its hold on its opponents following street protests against Putin during the winter.

The trial has exposed the president to international criticism for politically motivated prosecutions, including from the U.S. State Department, human rights groups and pop stars.   Continued...

Yekaterina Samutsevich (2nd L) and Maria Alyokhina (L), members of female punk band "Pussy Riot", sit in the defendant's cell before a court hearing in Moscow August 8, 2012. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin