Court keeps anti-Putin punk rockers in jail

A Moscow court Thursday extended until late June the pretrial detention of two young members of a feminist punk band whose stunt performance in Russia's main cathedral has drawn fury from the Church.

The once-unheralded Pussy Riot -- its cast clad in neon balaclavas and bright tights -- has turned into a new symbol of the nascent protest movement against ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin's May return for a third presidential term.

Three detained members of the group each face seven years if convicted in a case that has drawn the ire of Western right groups and renewed concerns about the 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 said from inside the metal cage used in Russian trials before the court extended her jail stay through June 24.

Member Maria Alyokhina said before her stay was extended that "behind bars, I feel more free than those who put me there".

A ruling on the last detained members was due later on Thursday.

Dozens of Pussy Riot fans squared off outside court against policemen and a few Russian Orthodox Church supporters who on Sunday plan to join a "cleansing prayer" in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral where the band sang in February.

An AFP reporter saw police detain about 15 people who threw smoke bombs or began chanting or singing in support of the band.

The three members of the group for their part were swarmed by dozens of photographers as they stepped out of their white police van and waved meekly to the crowd like emerging movie stars.

"It is not in the authorities' interest to do this," a defence attorney told reporters before the hearing. "There are all the grounds necessary to set them free."

The presiding judge said she took the fact that both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina had young children at home into account but had decided that this did not provide grounds to release them because of the crime's severity.

The group's "Punk Prayer" song included lyrics calling for the Virgin Mary to "drive out Putin" and "become a feminist".

Pussy Riot's unlikely rise to near the top of Russia's political agenda has even Putin's official spokesman remark that the Russian leader had a "negative" opinion of the group.

Leading members of the Church for their part have been far less guarded.

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".

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.

But estate agent and Church supporter Alexender Orlov said the group had in fact displayed what is seen as a growing and increasingly evident public disrespect for Russia's believers.

"We have complete discrimination against the Orthodox faith. People who insult our faith and our people go unpunished... I came to say that I am against what happened," he told AFP.

Orlov said he thought the group's performance was a "vile insult".

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