MOSCOW (Reuters) - Members of an all-woman Russian punk band on trial for staging a protest at the altar of Moscow’s main cathedral will likely receive long jail terms despite President Vladimir Putin saying they should not be judged too harshly, a defense lawyer said.
A Moscow court refused to hear most defense witnesses called to testify on Friday on behalf of the protest action by the Pussy Riot band, dimming hopes among human rights groups that Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, could escape lengthy sentences.
“Putin cheated us yet again,” defense lawyer Nikolai Polozov said on the social networking site Twitter. “The court continues pressurizing the defendants and ourselves.”
Band members face up to seven years in prison if convicted of hooliganism in a case that has drawn international criticism and which the opposition says is part of the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent.
Putin said in London on Thursday that there was “nothing good” about the February protest which saw the band performing a “punk prayer” at the altar of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, calling on the Virgin Mary to “Throw Putin out!”
“Nonetheless, I don’t think that they should be judged so harshly for this,” the former KGB spy said.
Police detained at least three people outside the court on the fifth day of the trial after they climbed a balcony of an edifice facing the courtroom and shouted “Freedom to Pussy Riot”.
“The authorities are now trying to imitate the rule of law and an unbiased trial,” Violetta Volkova, another of the band’s lawyers, said.
“Why imitate? Because the ... looming harsh sentence will prove that the court is independent. If Putin did not intend to influence the trial, he should not have made any statements. He should have stayed silent,” she said.
Pussy Riot’s performance was part of a wider winter protest movement against Putin’s return to the presidency for a third term. It was the largest such wave of dissent he has faced in his 12 years serving either as president or prime minister.
But the band’s performance has offended many in mainly Orthodox Christian Russia, with Vsevolod Chaplin, who is responsible for the church’s ties with society, saying that “the act was very stupid, and offensive for believers”.
Additional reporting and writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Michael Roddy