MOSCOW (Reuters) - 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 defense 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’,” defense 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 defense’s complaints that the trio were being deprived of sleep and food were ignored.
The defense 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 organizers 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 August 2 that there was “nothing good” in the trio’s performance, in which they burst into Christ the Saviour Cathedral on February 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.
The band’s lawyers initially seemed heartened by his remarks but later suggested they were intended to appease an international audience.
“Putin cheated us yet again,” Polozov said on the social networking site Twitter on Friday. “The court continues pressurizing 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 songs.
Some guards turned to the wall to conceal their laughter when defense 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 programs broadcast on Russian television.
Volkova also questioned the prosecution’s references to rules on church behavior 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 defense 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 defense 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.
Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Alissa de Carbonnel and Maria Tsvetkova, Writing by Gleb Bryanski, Editing by Timothy Heritage