MOSCOW (Reuters) - A court on Monday rejected a request to call President Vladimir Putin and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to testify in the trial of three female punk rockers who derided Putin in a protest in the country’s main cathedral, their lawyer said.
Three members of the band Pussy Riot, all in their 20s, have been held in jail on hooliganism charges since storming the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February to stage a “punk prayer” to the Virgin Mary to “Throw Putin Out!”
At a preliminary hearing on Monday, the court ruled that the trial will start in a week, on July 30, and will be broadcast on the court’s website.
Rights groups and defense lawyers for Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who face up to seven years in prison if convicted, say the case against them is politically motivated.
Their performance was part of the biggest opposition protests of Putin’s 12-year rule, ahead of his March election to a new six-year presidential term after a stint as prime minister.
It offended many believers and drew the ire of the head of the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, a Putin ally who said the church was “under attack by persecutors” and has encouraged pro-church demonstrations.
The case has also prompted a fresh discussion about links between the church and the Kremlin in predominantly Orthodox Christian Russia, where ties between church and state go back more than a millennium.
Defense lawyer Mark Feigin said the court had rejected a list of 34 people he wanted to call as witnesses, including Putin and Kirill. The court gave no reason but said the defense would be able to make further applications to call witnesses during the trial, Feigin told Reuters.
“So for now only the prosecution side’s witnesses will take part,” he added.
Outside the court, which also housed the second trial of jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, police detained at least two activists protesting against the detention of the three women, Russian news agencies reported.
On Friday the court extended their custody for a further six months.
The case has drawn criticism from human rights groups and opposition activists. U.S. rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers’ frontman Anthony Kiedis performed in a T-shirt with a “Pussy Riot” inscription at concerts in St. Petersburg and Moscow last week.
Additional reporting by Mikhail Antonov and Gennady Novik, editing by Tim Pearce