'Punk prayer' to test Putin's tolerance


Three young women who staged an irreverent punk-rock protest against Vladimir Putin on the altar of Russia's main cathedral go on trial tomorrow in a case seen as a test of the president's tolerance of dissent.

The trial of the activists - from the band 'Pussy Riot' - should show how much power the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church and its head, Patriarch Kirill, wields.

He has called the "punk prayer" blasphemy, casting it as part of a sinister anti-clerical campaign.

Maria Alyokhina (24) Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (29) were jailed in late February after taking to the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral and belting out a song calling on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out!".

The plight of the three women, two of whom have young children, has made headlines in the West.

Governments and rights groups, as well as musicians such as Sting and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have expressed concern about the trial, reflecting doubts that Mr Putin - who is serving his third presidential term and could be in power until 2024 - will become more tolerant of dissenting voices.

"The court's decision will depend not on the law but on what the Kremlin wants," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a Soviet-era dissident and veteran human rights activist who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Symbolically, the trial will take place in the same Moscow courthouse where jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was found guilty of stealing his own oil in a trial in 2010 that many Western politicians said looked like a crude Kremlin attempt to keep a man it saw as a political threat behind bars.

Charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility, the women face up to seven years in prison if convicted - a punishment rights groups say would be grossly disproportionate no matter what the law says.

Pussy Riot, who say they were inspired by 90s-era feminist US punk bands Bikini Kill and Riot Grrl, burst onto the scene this winter with angry lyrics and envelope-pushing performances, including one on Red Square, that went viral on the Internet.

The collective, who say they average 25 years of age, see themselves as the avant-guard of a disenchanted generation that is looking for creative ways to show its dissatisfaction with Mr Putin's 12-year dominance of the political landscape.

The all-girl group has no lead singer, and, in order that anyone may join, its members don multi-coloured balaclavas, which have become its trademark. They numbered five when they formed in November but later expanded to ten members, though there have been no performances in Russia since their bandmates' arrest.