Verdict in Russian punk trial set for Aug. 17

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By NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — A Moscow judge wrapped up the trial of three feminist punk rockers on Wednesday and said she would issue a verdict in the controversial case next week.

Prosecutors have called for three-year prison sentences for the Pussy Riot band members, who have already been in custody for five months after giving an impromptu performance in Moscow's main cathedral to call for an end to Vladimir Putin's rule.

The three women — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23; Maria Alekhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 — high-kicked and danced as they belted out their "punk prayer" in Christ the Savior Cathedral in February.

They were charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years.

Tolokonnikova, dressed in jeans and a blue T-shirt, said in a trembling voice, looking at prosecutors: "We have more freedom than all those people from the prosecution in front of me — because we can say what we want."

Their case has sharply divided Russia. Some believers felt offended, while other Russians have been angered by what they see as repressive treatment for the expression of political beliefs. Orthodox leaders have ignored calls to pardon the women and urge the court to dismiss the case.

The trial has been seen as part of the widening government crackdown on dissent that followed Putin's election in March to a third presidential term.

"With every day an increasing number of people start to realize that if the political machine turned against girls who performed in the Christ the Savior Cathedral for 40 seconds, this means only that this political system is scared of the truth and the sincerity that we bring," Tolokonnikova said.

Putin last week criticized the Pussy Riot stunt, but said the band members should not be judged too harshly.

Defense lawyer Nikolai Polozov said Wednesday that Putin's remarks indicated that "he virtually has found them guilty already and only meant to say that the court's punishment shouldn't be too harsh."

Violetta Volkova, another defense lawyer, said an acquittal "would be the only chance for the judge to save face — not only for her, but for the entire Russian political system."

Stanislav Samutsevich, the father of one of the defendants, voiced concern that the women's anti-Putin rhetoric might have antagonized the judge.

The defense lawyers said that activists around the world will show their solidarity with the band by holding a global protest on Aug. 17, the day Judge Marina Syrova is to issue her verdict.

Amnesty International has called the women prisoners of conscience. Musicians including Madonna, The Who's Pete Townsend and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys have urged their release.

During a Tuesday gig in Moscow, Madonna had the words "Pussy Riot" written on her bare back and also donned a ski mask, or balaclava — symbol of the band. The punk rockers perform in bright-colored homemade ski masks.

Early in the trial, the band members apologized to all Orthodox believers, saying that they did not mean to offend anyone and that their performance was aimed against Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who had urged Russians to vote for Putin.

Prosecutors and lawyers for church employees, who were described as the injured party in the case, insisted that they saw no political motives behind the band's actions, only blasphemy and hatred toward Orthodox believers.

"How did it happen that our performance, which was a small and clumsy stunt, brought so much trouble?" Alekhina told the court. "How can this happen in a healthy society? And now it takes thousands of people around the world to prove the obvious, to prove that the three of us are innocent."

Supporters in the courtroom greeted Alekhina's speech with enthusiastic applause, to which the judge responded, "This is not a theater."

About a dozen Pussy Riot supporters also gathered outside the courthouse, and at least three, including a protester wearing a balaclava, were detained, the Interfax news agency reported.

Before their church stunt, the band became an Internet sensation for performing a song that praised last winter's massive anti-Putin protests from a spot on Red Square used in the past for announcing czar's decrees. The group members have described themselves as feminists and accused the Russian leadership of infringing on the rights of women and the gay and lesbian community.

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