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KIEV (Reuters) - A topless women's rights activist hacked down a Christian cross in the Ukrainian capital Kiev with a chain saw on Friday in protest at the prosecution of the Russian feminist punk band, Pussy Riot.
The young woman staged her protest as a Russian court was due to deliver a verdict on three Pussy Riot members for performing a political "punk prayer" at the altar of Moscow's main cathedral - a case that has been criticized by free-speech advocates around the world.
To show solidarity with the Pussy Riot defendants, Inna Shevchenko, a member of the Ukrainian group Femen which often stages bare-breasted shock performances, destroyed the four-meter high wooden cross bearing the figure of Christ.
The cross, erected in 2005 on a hilltop looking down on the city centre, also served as a memorial to the victims of Stalinist repression and the famine of the 1930s. Two other activists used ropes to direct the fall of the cross.
"No business, not even one as successful as the church, has the right to attack women's rights," Shevchenko, 22, a veteran of several Femen protests, said after bringing down the cross.
A criminal case has been formally opened for hooliganism in connection with the incident, police spokesman Ihor Mykhalko said. The maximum sentence for the offence is four years in jail.
Shevchenko, who had "Free Riot" written across her chest and arms, demonstratively crossed herself Orthodox-style before taking the chain saw to the cross.
Afterwards she posed for photographers with her arms spread-eagled. There were no police at the scene.
Femen's move seems certain to trigger outrage, both among religious groups in the predominantly Orthodox Christian country and among relatives of the millions of victims of famine and repression that took place under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
The cross had been installed near the former Kiev headquarters of the Soviet NKVD state security agency which was the main instrument of Stalin's purges.
Friday's move represented a departure for Femen activists previously known for baring their breasts at public events to highlight their campaign against prostitution and sex tourism.
When Ukraine hosted the European soccer championship in June - a popular event that many Ukrainians saw as recognition of the country's place in the European mainstream - Femen used the event to stage high-visibility protests.
Femen activists attempted to steal the championship's trophy and held several protests in the official Kiev "fan zone" where thousands of foreign tourists were gathered.
Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alistair Lyon