Court keeps anti-Putin punk rockers in jail
A Moscow court yesterday extended until late June the pre-trial detention of three members of a feminist punk band whose stunt performance in Russia’s main cathedral has drawn fury from the Church.
Pussy Riot, which performs in neon balaclavas and bright dresses, has shot from obscurity in recent months with impromptu concerts protesting against ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin’s May return for a third Kremlin term.
Three detained members each face seven years if convicted on criminal charges in a case that has drawn the ire of Western right groups and renewed concerns about close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state.
“It was a performance directed against a merger of State and Church,” group member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, said defiantly from inside the metal cage used in Russian trials before a court extended her jail stay to June 24.
Another member Maria Alyokhina said before her stay was extended that “behind bars, I feel more free than those who put me there.”
The Russian Orthodox Church plans to hold a “cleansing prayer” in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral on Sunday where the band sang in February, saying they desecrated holy relics kept there.
Police dragged away protesters who threw smoke bombs or began chanting “Freedom” and singing in support of the band. Around 30 people were detained, a police spokesman said.
The presiding judge said she took the fact that both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina had young children into account but decided that this did not provide grounds to release them because of the crime’s severity.
The women’s lawyers asked for them to be bailed or held under house arrest, but the investigator asked the judge to keep them behind bars, arguing they could flee justice or commit other crimes.
The group’s “Punk Prayer” song included lyrics calling for the Virgin Mary to “drive out Putin”.
The court hearing was covered by all Russian media and aired on the staid evening news show on state-controlled Channel One.
Pussy Riot’s unlikely rise to near the top of Russia’s political agenda has even seen Putin’s official spokesman remark that the Russian leader had a “negative” opinion of the group.
Leading members of the Church have spoken out to condemn the women.
Patriarch Kirill called the stunt “blasphemous” and called on believers to rise in the Church’s defence.
And his controversial chief spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin recently told Moscow Echo radio the women had committed a “crime worse than murder”.
But some believers feel the Church has gone too far.
Grey-haired translator Valentina Kuznetsova wielded a Bible outside the courtroom in support of the women.
“They have done what we should have done, people of the Church,” she said, calling the Church a “ministry of Orthodoxy under Putin’s government”.
The Church has seen its ranks swell since the lifting of a Soviet-era ban in contemporary Russia.
Putin has used the Church skilfully since first winning office in 2000 to build on his message of patriotic pride and Orthodox faith – a mixture that critics says leaves little room for alternative thought.