A Russian prosecutor demanded a three-year prison sentence for three members of an all-female punk band on trial in Moscow for hooliganism and inciting religious hatred.
Pussy Riot performed what they called a “punk prayer” in February inside Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral, the country’s main Christian Orthodox place of worship, targeting Vladimir Putin, who extended his 12-year rule in presidential elections in March.
The protest “had a negative psychological effect on Orthodox Christian believers,” the prosecutor, Alexander Nikiforov, said in comments broadcast on the website of the RIA Novosti news service. Mark Feigin, a lawyer for the women, said he expects a guilty verdict and a jail sentence that will “really anger” Russian society.
Three months into Putin’s third presidential term, the punk band members await a ruling as the Russian leader hardens his response to the biggest unrest since he came to power in 2000. Anti-corruption activist and protest leader Alexey Navalny as well as Alexander Lebedev, the billionaire newspaper owner who supports the opposition movement, face criminal charges.
Putin has responded to demonstrations by tens of thousands of Russians against alleged fraud in parliamentary and presidential elections by tightening controls over the Internet and non-governmental institutions and prosecuting opposition activists and leaders.
The U.S. government condemned the prosecution of the punk band on July 31, Amnesty International has declared the members prisoners of conscience and music stars including Madonna, Peter Gabriel and Sting have rallied to their defense. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed former oil tycoon, said the band members’ trial and detention conditions are degrading and may amount to torture.
Maria Alekhina, 24, Ekaterina Samutsevich, 29, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, rejected criminal charges of hooliganism at the start of their trial on July 30. They argued that their case should be treated as an administrative violation, while apologizing for upsetting religious sensibilities.
“I am sorry if we hurt somebody’s religious feelings,” Tolokonnikova said today. “We don’t have any religious hatred. Our act was political.”
Alekhina said that the investigator in her case had threatened a sentence of as much as four years in prison to secure her cooperation, and she and the other women on trial had been deprived of any contact with their relatives during five months of incarceration.
The three defendants, who were among five Pussy Riot band members who performed the “punk prayer” in masks and wearing skimpy dresses, face a maximum of seven years in prison under the Russian criminal code.
Putin, 59, said on a visit to London last week to see Russian athletes performing in the Olympics and to meet U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron that while he didn’t see “anything good” in the behavior of the members of the punk group, they shouldn’t be judged “too severely.”
Navalny faces as many as 10 years in jail after being charged last week with embezzling money from a state timber company. Investigators opened a criminal case against Lebedev for hooliganism after he punched property developer Sergey Polonsky during a television show last September.
“These are not signs supporting those that hope for change in the new era of Putin,” Jim O’Neill, chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management who coined the BRICs acronym to describe large emerging markets, said in an e-mailed note yesterday. “For a country with an average GDP per capita of around $15,000, these are issues that should be diminishing.”
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