Punk band Pussy Riot's courtroom drama grips Russia

The trial of three members of an all-girl punk band charged for performing an anti-Vladimir Putin song in the country's main cathedral has gripped Russians, some describing the court drama as better than the theatre.

Journalists, bloggers, relatives and supporters have crowded since Monday into Moscow's 40-seater Khamovnichesky courtroom for the hearing that included a "witness" who turned out to have viewed the incident online and another who declared the word "feminist" obscene if uttered in a church.

Court bailiffs, armed with guns and even backed up by a brutal-looking dog, constantly snapped: "That's not funny!" in an attempt to curb the sniggers.

The jokes have reverberated over the Internet via Twitter and judge Marina Syrova decided to suspend the trial's Internet broadcast.

"This is better than going to the theatre!" one member of the audience exclaimed during Wednesday's hearing of the case against the three members of Pussy Riot.

On Thursday, the courtroom drama took a sinister turn when a bomb threat prank call interrupted the hearing.

Although security officers escorted everyone out to inspect the premises, the defendants were left sitting in the court house, their lawyers said.

On the eve of March's presidential polls, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina had barged into the Church of Christ the Saviour and performed a "punk prayer" against Putin who was running for a third Kremlin term.

They now face up to seven years in a prison colony if found guilty of hooliganism in the case that has proved highly polarising in the predominantly Orthodox country, with the prosecution and some witnesses arguing the performance was intended to offend believers.

A security guard, a cleaner and a woman whose job is tending the candles are among people who have come under questioning in the case so far.

Visibly out of their depth as the lawyers prodded them to describe the distress caused by Pussy Riot's performance, they were baited to make statements that have become the subject of ridicule by bloggers.

On Monday, candle attendant Lyubov Sokologorskaya declared in response to a question from one of the Pussy Riot members, Tolokonnikova, that she considered the word 'feminist' to be obscene if it was uttered in church.

She was also questioned in detail by her lawyer Larisa Pavlova, who asked her, "How did the women kick up their legs?"

"You could see everything from the waist down," she replied.

On Wednesday, the judge insisted on hearing a witness for the prosecution as the Pussy Riot members pleaded unsuccessfully for their complaint over their lack of sleep and food to be accepted.

"You are torturing our defendants!" said one of the women's lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, while the judge loudly pounded the gavel.

The judge and prosecutor then turned their full attention on a witness for the prosecution, an estate agent who volunteers with Orthodox youth, Oleg Ugrik.

"Would you call yourself a deep believer in God?" the prosecutor asked Ugrik, ignoring a commotion as defence lawyer Violetta Volkova stormed out of the courtroom in protest.

Ugrik vowed his religious convictions by saying that to him, the "concepts of heaven and hell are just as real as the Moscow metro."

But it turned out that Ugrik, who described the women's performance as a "call of dark forces", had never witnessed the actual incident in the cathedral and based his views on news broadcasts and the Internet.

Dragging on a cigarette during a break, Polozov said dispiritedly that the court might as well summon as witnesses all 1.5 million people who have now watched the clip of the women's performance on YouTube.

"This is the same as judging a murder case based on a film noir," he said. "This is an imitation of the law."

Some critics have also compared the trial to a mediaeval inquisition.

"Sadly I haven't seen anything legal about the Pussy Riot trial so far," wrote rights advocate Pavel Chikov on Twitter.

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