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Russia convicts Pussy Riot protest punks

A Russian court finds three women from the punk band Pussy Riot guilty of hooliganism based on testimony of the 'defendants themselves and other evidence'

AFP , Friday 17 Aug 2012
Russia
Members of the female punk band "Pussy Riot" (R-L) Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in a glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Moscow, August 17, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)
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A Moscow court on Friday found guilty three young members of a feminist punk band who captured global attention by defying the Russian authorities and ridiculing President Vladimir Putin in a church.

Judge Marina Syrova said the three Pussy Riot protest band members had displayed a "clear disrespect toward society" by staging their February 21 "Punk Prayer" performance inside Russia's most important church.

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

"The court finds them quilty. The court reached this decision based on testimony of the defendants themselves and other evidence."

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich -- two of them mothers and none older than 30 -- looked wan as they stood inside a glass cage to hear the outcome of Russia's highest profile trial in years.

Some supporters inside the courtroom bowed their heads as they awaited the sentence for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" to be delivered later Friday.

The prosecution is seeking three years of corrective labour in the toughest facility available for first time female offenders.

The judge opened the hearing with dozens of passionate band and Orthodox Church followers being held apart by riot police and Western diplomats jostling with reporters for a spot inside the courtoom.

Witnesses saw several Pussy Riot supporters -- 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.

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.

But the 22-year-old stressed that she would never ask Putin for a pardon. "Let him ask you and me for forgiveness instead," she told the opposition Novaya Gazeta paper in an interview published hours before the verdict.

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 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 band mates 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".

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 fines and 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".

A poll conducted by the respected private Levada Centre shows opinion has shifted firmly in the singers' favour after the public initially backed a full seven-year sentence applicable to the crime.

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