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March, 31 2015
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Russia convicts Pussy Riot protest punks

Members of the female punk band “Pussy Riot” (R-L) Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina sit in a glass-walled cage after a court hearing in Moscow. -Reuters Photo

MOSCOW: A Moscow court on Friday found guilty three young members of a feminist punk band who infuriated the Kremlin and captured global attention by ridiculing President Vladimir Putin in a church.

Judge Marina Syrova said the three Pussy Riot members had displayed a “clear disrespect toward society” by staging a “Punk Prayer” performance just weeks ahead of Putin's historic but controversial March election to a third term.

“Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich committed hooliganism -- in other words, a grave violation of public order,” she told the packed room as the defendants exchanged a few quick glances and shook their heads.

“The court finds them guilty. The court reached this decision based on testimony of the defendants themselves and other evidence,” the judge said at the beginning of a verdict she was still reading hours later without handing down a sentence.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, respectively 22 and 24 and both mothers of young children, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, looked wan as they stood inside a glass cage to hear the outcome of Russia's highest profile trial in years.

Their sentence of up to three years of corrective labour for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” was expected later Friday.

They had pulled on knitted masks and stripped down to short fluorescent dresses near the altar of Moscow's biggest cathedral on February 21 before belting out a raucous chorus calling on the Virgin Mary to “drive out Putin”.

Some supporters inside the courtroom bowed their heads as they waited to here the fate of the three, prime examples of the type of educated youth whose support Putin has rapidly lost in recent months.

The state-appointed judge opened the hearing with dozens of passionate supporters of the band and the Russian Orthodox Church being held apart by riot police and Western diplomats jostling with reporters for a spot inside the courtroom.

Witnesses saw about 30 Pussy Riot fans -- the radical leftist leader Sergei Udaltsov among them -- being taken away into waiting vans by police.

“Let Pussy Riot and all their supporters burn in hell,” one church supporter screamed amid the tumult.

The once-unheralded band members have already been held in pre-trial detention for five months despite international protests about their treatment by Putin's team.

“If someone is placed in pre-trial detention in Russia, that means they are getting convicted,” veteran human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyva told the private Dozhd TV channel.

“It looks like they will have to take this to Europe,” she said in reference to the European Court of Human Rights.

The three have asked the faithful to forgive them for causing offence but vigorously defended their view that Russia had made little progress in the 12 years of Putin's domination from the worst of its totalitarian days.

“I do not believe in this court. There is no court. It is an illusion,”Tolokonnikova said in reference to Russian judges' propensity to toe the Kremlin line in big cases.

The conviction was issued as Pussy Riot release rallies began to be staged from Sydney to New York and a growing list of celebrities joined the likes of Paul McCartney and Bjork in a campaign directed against Putin's crackdown on dissent.

Amnesty International members rallied outside the Russian embassy in Brussels while some wore the band's trademark balaclavas and demanded “an end to the inquisition” as they gathered in Paris at the Pompidou Centre.

The verdict is being delivered in the same week that Putin marks the first 100 days of a third Kremlin term he has already used to slap new restrictions on protests and political organisations with foreign sources of income.

Yet the moves -- all stemming from Putin's charge that Washington was funding the historic protests against his return to the Kremlin last winter -- appear to be backfiring.

A poll published on the front page of the Vedomosti business daily on Friday showed Putin's approval rating slipping to a post-election low of 48 percent -- a notable slide from the 60 percent he enjoyed around his May inauguration.

The former KGB agent's return to a Kremlin post he used to centralise power in 2000-2008 has been repeatedly punctuated by tense diplomatic exchanges with Western governments fearful about the future of free expression in Russia.

The US State Department has already angered Moscow by voicing formal concern about the “politically motivated prosecution of the Russian opposition”.


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