Pussy Riot plead not guilty as trial begins

From left, Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot. Photo / AP
From left, Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot. Photo / AP

Three members of an all-girl punk band voiced regret today for causing offence by performing an anti-Vladimir Putin song in Russia's main Orthodox cathedral but said they were innocent of the charges.

The three women - who face up to seven years in jail if found guilty of hooliganism - said they had wanted to change Russia with their action but could have made an "ethical" mistake by offending worshippers.

Initial hearings in the trial earlier this month saw the court order the three members of Pussy Riot, who are all in their 20s, to stay in detention until January 2013, a move their supporters condemned as travesty of justice.

All three told the judge at the Khamovnichesky court in Moscow they were innocent of the charges, in a process that is growing into a landmark event in the struggle between President Putin and Russia's emboldened opposition.

In February, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina climbed into an area reserved for priests in the Church of Christ the Saviour and performed a "punk prayer" against Putin.

They were arrested in March and charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred of Orthodox believers. Several others also took part in the protest but were never arrested.

The three have been held in detention ever since and their case has been taken up by celebrities including pop star Sting and US rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers and become a new rallying cause for the opposition against Putin.

After the three women, all dressed casually, confidently gave their names, places of residence and birthdates, their lawyer Violetta Volkova read out handwritten statements in their names.

"It (the action) was a desperate attempt to change the political system. We had no intention of insulting people. We did not expect our punk appearance would cause offence," said the statement by Tolokonnikova, 22.

"The fact we do not accept guilt in the charges does not mean we are not ready to admit our mistakes. If someone was insulted then I am prepared to accept that we made an ethical mistake," her statement said.

They said the motivation for their action was a protest against the support in elections for Putin by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill which was against the principles of Russia's secular constitution.

Samutsevich, 29, added: "The main theme of all our texts was not (Orthodox Christianity) but illegitimacy of the elections".

"I don't understand the ideology of the prosecution," 24-year-old Alekhina said. "I don't understand why a conclusion is made about our motives."

Amnesty International called for release of the women.

"This trial should never have taken place," Europe director John Dalhuisen said in a statement. "The trial is clearly politically motivated."

In a bid to show transparency, the court started broadcasting the proceedings live online although the footage did not show the faces of the judge or prosecutors.

However at the prosecution's request, the judge ruled that the broadcast will be halted during questioning of witnesses or defendants.

The judge also ruled that no defence witnesses would be called, and spent the rest of the day questioning those who had complained about the Pussy Riot performance.

"They kicked their legs so high that you could see everything from the waist down," said Lyubov Sokologorskaya, a candle seller in the cathedral, voicing hope that the women's punishment is "fitting so that they never again want to do something like this... so that they are afraid".

In an interview with The Times newspaper published today, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for calm over the case, but acknowledged that it had "resonance" for the public.

The trial is being held in the same court that in 2010 saw the second trial and conviction of Putin foe and the former head of the Yukos oil giant Mikhail Khodorkovsky on fraud charges.

- AFP

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