Three members of Russia’s all female punk band Pussy Riot have gone on trial in a Moscow district court surrounded by riot police.

The three young women, who have been in detention since early March, face a maximum sentence of seven years for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after they and two others allegedly performed the song “Blessed Virgin, Mother Mary, Drive Putin Out!” in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February.

The song was addressed to Vladimir Putin, then prime minister and now president. He signalled harsh punishments were in order for the women, in one of the first signs of an impending political crackdown launched after his inauguration for a third presidential term in May.

About 50 protesters braved the pouring rain on Friday to stand outside the courtroom with an assortment of signs, while inside, the three women, lounging in a metal cage for defendants, heard the opening motions in the trial.

The three include band leader Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina. They have not admitted to taking part in the performance, where band members’ faces were obscured by their trademark dayglo masks.

The start of the trial was just a technical hearing, but in an indication of how long it might last, prosecutors asked for an additional six months of detention for the three accused.

From the start, the Russian Orthodox Church to which the majority of Russians claim adherence, has called for harsh punishment citing “religious hatred” in the women’s performance in the cathedral and their lack of “repentance”.

In April, Kirill, the Church patriarch, led a mass outside the cathedral in which he appeared to draw parallels between the band’s performance and Bolshevik persecution of the Church during the communist era.

Critics, however, say that the state’s case against Pussy Riot is weak and that the trial has been so politicised that it will only discredit the government.

“I think that what they did is morally wrong, and there does exist a consensus on this in our country” said Father Andrei Kurayev, who represents a liberal branch of the Orthodox Church.

“If someone, say, shouted fascist slogans in a synagogue, then the police should certainly get involved. But the size of the proposed punishment is quite out of proportion to what they did,” he said.

He pointed out that it has been hard for the prosecution to decide who to name as victim of the crime – in the end, the state identified nine people, most of whom were present during the performance, including the cathedral’s guards.

“The guards’ job is to keep this from happening, and so we call them victims when they fail?” said Father Andrei. “If I get on a bus and don’t buy a ticket, is the conductor a victim?”

Mikhail Kuznetsov, lawyer for Vladimir Potanin, one of the guards, told Moskovskie Novosti newspaper on Thursday that his client “had suffered deeply” and lost sleep as a result of the incident.

Mr Kuznetsov described the punk band as the “tip of an iceberg of extremists, trying to break down the thousand year edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church by creating a schism, guiding the flock through trickery and cunning not to God, but to Satan”. He added: “Behind this stands real enemies of our state, and Church.”

He went on to accuse Pussy Riot of being supported by the same “Satanic forces” that carried out the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Masha Lipman, an expert on politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center, called Mr Kuznetsov’s comments “bizarre” and “illustrative of the trend towards obscurantism which has been encouraged by this case”.

The trial takes place against the backdrop of a broader Kremlin crackdown on the anti-Putin opposition, which began holding mass demonstrations in Moscow in December. Whilst steadily losing support among relatively liberal urban elites in Moscow and other large cities, Mr Putin has been attracting support in Russia’s far flung regions by increasing nationalism and reactionary rhetoric.

“The more modernised forces in Russia have started to become more active and this is pushing the government towards social conservatism: a traditional respect for authority in which the line between the Church and the state is blurred,” said Ms Lipman.

Public opinion polls have shown the Russian public to be split – a poll published on July 11 by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation, a polling agency, showed 39 per cent of Russians believed several years’ prison sentence was “just” punishment for the women, while 37 per cent thought it was unfair.

Several Russian cities, including Moscow and St Petersburg, have recently passed laws banning “homosexual propaganda” which detractors see as another illustration of the trend towards social conservatism.

The all female group, which at last count had 11 members, was formed in October 2011 and has made illegal performances a trademark, along with colourful tights and ski masks. They have performed atop a construction hoist in a Moscow metro station, on Red Square, and in the cathedral. 

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