|Members of female punk band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (C), Maria Alyokhina (R) and Yekaterina Samutsevich, sit behind bars before a court hearing in Moscow, July 20, 2012. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
MOSCOW - A state prosecutor on Tuesday demanded a three-year jail term for three women from the punk band Pussy Riot, saying they had abused God when they stormed the altar of a Moscow cathedral and sang a “protest prayer” against the Russian Orthodox Church’s close links to Vladimir Putin.
The case, in which the three are charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, has outraged many Russian Orthodox believers.
But it has also caused an international outcry and focused attention on a crackdown on dissent since Putin returned to the presidency for a six-year term on May 7.
“The actions of the accomplices clearly show religious hatred and enmity,” federal prosecutor Alexei Nikiforov said in closing arguments, watched by the women’s lawyers, friends and family in the tiny courtroom.
“There was real mockery and humiliation directed at the people in the church,” he said.
The defendants looked pale and tired as they sat silently in a glass and metal courtroom cage, two of them scribbling notes. Their lawyer said the demand for a prison sentence was disproportionate and shameful.
Nikiforov did not press the court for the maximum seven-year sentence. Putin said last week that Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, had done “nothing good” but should not be judged too harshly.
But the prosecutor ignored pleas by the opposition and human rights groups not to seek jail terms over the profanity-laced protest, in which the trio, wearing balaclavas and short dresses, burst into the Christ the Saviour Cathedral and belted out a song urging the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
“Using swear words in a church is an abuse of God,” Nikiforov said.
He dismissed the defendants’ argument that the protest was not intended to offend believers and was aimed at highlighting the church’s support for Putin.
“The insult is not to Putin but to the social group of Orthodox Christian believers,” he said.
'MIRACLE OF GOD'
Pussy Riot, an all-women group, formed last October in protest against Putin’s domination of Russia and his plan, now fulfilled, to return to the Kremlin. He could also seek another six-year term as president when his current stint ends in 2018.
The band members see themselves as part of a protest movement that last winter organised the biggest demonstrations since the former KGB spy first rose to power in 2000, at times attracting crowds in Moscow of 100,000.
“This is a nightmare. Blood is pouring from my ears,” defence lawyer Nikolai Polozov said in a message on a social network site after the prosecutor’s demand for jail terms.
In a country where few believe in the independence of the judiciary, the Kremlin could hope to win support among some of its critics if the final sentences are relatively lenient. But this could offend church leaders.
It is not clear when sentence will be passed but it could be anytime this week.
The trio’s protest also took aim at Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and infuriated church leaders who have described Putin’s 12-year rule as a “miracle of God” and described the women as doing the work of the devil.
The protest upset many Orthodox Christian believers for whom the Christ the Saviour Cathedral is a sacred place of worship and its pulpit a place reserved exclusively for priests.
The case has provided Putin, 59, with a chance to deepen his contacts with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has enjoyed a surge in support since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Opposition leaders say the trial is also part of a wider crackdown intended to silence Putin’s critics and which also includes tightening checks on foreign-funded lobby groups, new controls on the Internet and big fines for protesters.
The case has caused an outcry abroad and international musicians including Madonna, Sting and Red Hot Chili Peppers have appealed for leniency.
“I hope they do not have to serve seven years in jail. That would be a tragedy,” U.S. singer Madonna, in Moscow to perform a concert, told Reuters on Monday.