MOSCOW (Reuters) - Defense lawyers accused Russian authorities on Wednesday of depriving three members of a women’s punk band of sleep and food during a trial that critics say is part of a campaign to discredit President Vladimir Putin’s opponents.
One of the women needed medical attention in court on the third day of a trial over the “punk prayer” the Pussy Riot band performed against Putin on the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral in February.
Opposition groups say the trial is one of a series of moves by Putin to silence the anti-Kremlin movement, which has in the past eight months organized the biggest protests since he first rose to power in 2000.
Other moves they say are politically motivated include charges of theft against protest leader Alexei Navalny and accusations that Gennady Gudkov, a member of the lower house of parliament, has been involved in illegal business activity.
“The trial is being conducted in an outrageous way,” Defense lawyer Violetta Volkova said after a separate court rejected a plea for a month’s recess to give the Defense more time to read the prosecution’s 3,000-page case.
“The court sessions are lasting 11 hours a day, and our clients are not being allowed to eat or sleep adequately.”
She said Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, had been woken up at 5 a.m. and kept in a tiny room for hours without breakfast before going to court. Alyokhina felt ill during Wednesday’s proceedings.
“It has turned into a kind of torture,” Volkova said of hearings that last late into the evening, meaning the women get back to their cells long after midnight.
The trio are charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and face up to seven years in prison.
At the start of the trial on Monday, the women said they meant no offence and were motivated by anger over support for Putin from the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, during this year’s presidential election campaign.
The Defense lawyers say the authorities want to swiftly wrap up the high-profile trial, which has touched off a debate over the close ties between church and state, while public attention is relatively low because of summer vacations.
But the trial is depicted by the opposition as one of several signs that Putin, who won the election in March, is determined to suppress dissent now that he has taken office.
The federal Investigative Committee said in a statement that after looking into allegations raised against Gudkov, who has helped organize the anti-Kremlin protests, it had found enough evidence to continue its investigation.
It will send the results to prosecutors and the Duma, which has the power to revoke Gudkov’s immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament. Gudkov says he has done nothing illegal.
Navalny was charged on Tuesday over a sale of timber in 2009 in Russia’s Kirov region, where he was advising the governor at the time. He denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations are absurd.
“Judging by the way the situation is developing now, the common logic suggests that yes, they will certainly put me to prison. I‘m trying to prepare my relatives for that now,” Navalny told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
The United States said on Tuesday it was troubled by the charges against Navalny and Pussy Riot, as well investigations that have been launched into participants at a protest on May 6 at which violence broke out.
Austrian Deputy Foreign Minister Wolfgang Waldner added his concern, saying the Russian authorities’ reaction to the Pussy Riot impromptu performance was “completely excessive”.
“I expect the three defendants to be released immediately,” he told Die Presse in an interview released online on Wednesday.
The May 6 protest was staged one day before Putin began his new six-year term as president. Since then, parliament has passed a law increasing fines for protesters and tightened controls on foreign-funded campaign and lobby groups.
Putin, who has repeatedly warned against rocking the boat in speeches since his election, signed a law on Monday toughening punishment for defamation and another one on Tuesday that opponents say could be used to censor the Internet.
He did not comment on the Pussy Riot trial or the U.S. concerns during meetings with paratroopers on Wednesday.
The Pussy Riot trial is seen by the opposition as part of the crackdown. Although many Russians did not approve of the protest, most do not want harsh punishment for the three women.
In a nationwide survey conducted on July 20-23 and published on Tuesday, Levada found that 26 percent of Russians believe the defendants deserve prison sentences of more than six months.
A local leader of the ruling United Russia party in Putin’s hometown of St Petersburg has also taken the unusual step of openly calling for their immediate release in an open letter posted in his blog.
Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel, Maria Tsvetkova, Gabriela Baczynska and Timothy Heritage in Moscow and Michael Shields in Vienna, Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Will Waterman