Russia's Punk Rockers Rest Their Case in Court of World Opinion

The Moscow trial of a punk action group ended Wednesday, with the three accused women making impassioned speeches.

Judge Marina Syrova will deliver the ruling on Aug. 17, and though it is likely that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich will be convicted, they have won a huge victory. The unprecedented international resonance of the case appears to have thwarted plans to hold a series of show trials against the opposition to President Vladimir Putin's authoritarian rule.

The three women are in a Moscow feminist punk collective that performs loud songs with cheeky lyrics at locations such as subway stations or the middle of Red Square. Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevich were arrested in March after entering the ornate Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow and, for less than a minute, lip-synching a song slamming the Russian Orthodox Church for being too close to Putin. The three women were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," a crime with a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. The prosecutor asked the judge for a three-year term.

Most people who watched the trial came away with a sense of hopelessness and despair. Judge Syrova made no attempt to hide where her sympathies lie. She agreed to hear only three of the 17 witnesses called by the defense. All the prosecution witnesses were duly heard, and the judge disallowed about half of the questions asked by group's lawyers. She refused to let the defense question experts who found signs of “religious hatred."

The three women were kept in a glass cage built specifically for two other high-profile prisoners, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and founder of the oil company Yukos, and his business partner Platon Lebedev. In 2010, the same court sentenced them to 14 years in prison for theft and money laundering, though few questioned that the case had been politically motivated.

Initially, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were held behind bars during their trial. After they complained about this to the European Court of Human Rights, the glass cage was built.

“One feels like a tropical fish in it during the summer," Khodorkovsky wrote from his prison cell, commenting on the rockers' trial. “I cannot imagine how the poor girls fit in it. ... The word 'trial' is only applicable here in the sense in which the medieval inquisition used it.”

The three defense lawyers repeatedly expressed no confidence in the judge, but Syrova refused to step down. Her bitter debates with the defense counselor were accompanied by the barking of a police dog brought to the courtroom to guard the prisoners.

“This trial is so absurd that it is more and more reminiscent of the Dreyfus case,” wrote Alexei Venediktov, the Radio Echo Moscow editor-in-chief, referring to the historic French trial in which a Jewish officer was falsely accused of selling state secrets to the Germans.

While the proceedings left little room for doubt that Syrova intended to convict the three women, they were buoyed by the public support they received from famous musicians including Sting and Madonna. On Tuesday, Yoko Ono joined the chorus: “Mr. Putin, you are a wise man & dont need to fight with musicians & their friends," she tweeted.

Madonna campaigned the most fervently for the three women's release. “I mean no disrespect to the church or the government, but I think that these three girls, Masha, Katya and Nadya, have been courageous, that they have paid a price for this act, and I pray for their freedom," the singer told a sold-out stadium in Moscow. “Are you with me?” she screamed. The audience roared in response.

The deputy prime minister in charge of the military-industrial complex, Dmitry Rogozin, responded by calling Madonna a prostitute who, "as she gets older, wants to lecture everybody on morality, especially on world tours,” he tweeted.

The Western stars who have campaigned for the punk group mean little to Putin and his team. They are much more fearful of offending the church and their conservative electorate, the only power base they still have in Russia.

Yet the international support meant the world to the three women themselves. “On the one hand, we expect a conviction. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies and we have lost,” Samutsevich said in her last word on Wednesday. “On the other hand, we have won. The whole world can see now that the case against us is a fabrication. ... Again, in the eyes of the world, Russia does not look the way Putin would like it to look.”

The two other women took similar pains in their statements. The trial is already part of history, and it will to a large extent define Putin's third term in power, which ends in 2018. Alekhina told the court: “You can only take away my so-called freedom, since that is the only kind that exists in Russia today. As for my inner freedom, no one can take that away. It lives in my words, and it will live on when thousands of people read or hear them."

As the journalist Andrei Kozenko tweeted, “These were definitely not just last words but documents of the era."

Pro-Putin politicians poured scorn on the women's somewhat naive grandiloquence. “The lawyers shouldn't have written such bathetic speeches for them, they could not even read them normally,” United Russia party activist Vitaly Sapelkin tweeted.

But these are definitely not the kind of speeches Putin's people want to hear again in a widely covered public trial. So there are doubts that a second planned spectacle, the trial of 14 people arrested on charges of provoking violence at a May 6 opposition rally in Moscow, will even take place. Instead, indications are that the 14 will be tried separately, the popular news site reported.

"The participants in the May 6 events will be separated to keep things calm, and those who admitted their guilt will be tried first,” Vasily Kushnir, a lawyer for one suspect, told

In fact, Putin may find it to his advantage to show some leniency now. It was announced Wednesday that a local court in the Arkhangelsk region, where Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are doing time, had decided to grant Lebedev an early release seven months from now. This was unexpected considering Putin's personal interest in the case. But the political signal seems logical given the public reaction to the punk group's trial.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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