Pussy Riot: Russia prosecutors seek three years' jail

Pussy Riot defendant Yekaterina Samutsevich is led into court in Moscow, 7 August Yekaterina Samutsevich is seen here being escorted into court

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Russian prosecutors have asked for three years' in prison for three women musicians accused of inciting religious hatred during a protest in a cathedral.

The three members of the punk band Pussy Riot played a song attacking Russian leader Vladimir Putin in front of an altar on 21 February.

They told the court their performance was a political act, not aimed at hurting the feelings of believers.

Concern about the case has been voiced by the EU and others.

Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, could have faced a maximum sentence of seven years.

They said their performance of the "punk prayer" was a reaction to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, publicly backing Mr Putin in elections.

Last week, Mr Putin, who was re-elected president in March, called for leniency towards the women during a visit to London for the Olympic Games.

There are fears among Russian opposition activists that the trial is part of a crackdown on dissent since Mr Putin's return to the Kremlin, following the biggest anti-government protests in modern Russian history.

Feelings about the case within Russian society, where the Orthodox Church has enjoyed a revival since the collapse of the atheistic USSR, have been mixed.

'Abuse of God'

"The actions of the accomplices clearly show religious hatred and enmity," state prosecutor Alexei Nikiforov said in closing arguments.

"Using swear words in a church is an abuse of God."

He said the women had "set themselves up against the Orthodox Christian world".

Given the "severity" of the crime, he argued, the "requisite punishment must be a real deprivation of freedom".

The appearance of Pussy Riot inside Christ the Saviour Cathedral and the ensuing chaotic scenes were captured on video.

Wearing their trademark coloured balaclavas, the women danced and sang a song which parodies a Christian prayer, imploring the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr Putin.

The song, which has an obscene chorus, also appears to mock Patriarch Kirill himself.

Defence lawyer Mark Feygin argued on Tuesday that the case against the women did not stand up because they had been charged with hooliganism under Article 213 of the Russian penal code yet no violence or damage had occurred or been threatened.

'Unfair'

The prosecution of the women, who have been on remand for five months and two of whom have small children, has caused concern both within Russia and abroad.

"The EU is concerned about the reported irregularities related to this case since the group members were arrested in March, in particular the grounds for and conditions of their pre-detention," said a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

US singer Madonna, who is due to perform in Moscow's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday and St Petersburg on Thursday, told reporters it would be "a tragedy" if the women were sentenced to prison.

"I am against censorship and my whole career I always promoted freedom of expression, freedom of speech, so obviously I think what's happening to them is unfair," she said.

However her words have angered some Church supporters, who accused the singer of interfering in the country's internal affairs, and other religious figures vowed to stage protests outside the concerts

"We will drop by to say 'no' to blasphemy... and to explain our position to those who plan to attend her concert," said Kirill Frolov of the Orthodox Experts Association.

The US embassy said it had notified Russian police after receiving a threat of "physical violence against spectators and performers" at the planned concert in St Petersburg. It urged American citizens to be vigilant about their personal security.

Other international musicians including Sting and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have appealed for leniency.

"A sense of proportion - and a sense of humour - is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness," Sting said in a statement carried by Amnesty International last month.

Verdicts in the trial are expected later this week.

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