Pussy Riot becomes cause celebre in Putin's Russia

In February, five women walked silently into Moscow's Church of Christ the Saviour before clambering over railings, pulling on balaclavas and yelling out a protest song against Vladimir Putin.

The "punk prayer" by the all-woman group Pussy Riot lasted around a minute. But the echoes of their action are set to resound around Russia for years to come.

Three women arrested in March over the incident face up to seven years in a prison colony after being charged with hooliganism and have already spent four months awaiting trial behind bars.

Their case has been taken up by celebrities including pop star Sting and US rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

By acting with the utmost harshness, the authorities have turned the obscure group into a household name in a case that, according to some observers, risks becoming a publicity disaster for both Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The women were arrested ahead of March's presidential polls, after which newly elected President Putin signed harsh new laws cracking down on opposition activity.

Opinion polls show growing support for the women, whose trial began on July 20 with the judge remanding them in custody until January 2013 and will continue next week with the legal arguments starting Monday.

Independent Levada pollsters this month found that 50 percent of Russians took a "negative" view of the trial, while 36 percent said they saw it positively.

That shows a change in public opinion since March when 46 percent said the women should be jailed.

In June, more than 100 mainstream Russian actors and cultural figures -- including several who officially backed Putin's presidential bid -- signed an open letter calling for their release.

Even one of the Buranovskiye Babushki, the elderly village women who sang for Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest, voiced her pity.

The case has prompted serious comparisons with that of Yukos oil company founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was convicted of fraud after backing opposition to Putin and then re-sentenced for tax evasion.

In a stunning irony, the case is being heard in the same courthouse in Moscow.

"Three daring girls have provoked a grandiose court case comparable to the Yukos case", the politics editor of Vedomosti business daily wrote Thursday.

"Maybe it's even bigger than the Khodorkovsky case because it's obvious and it's straightforward," Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of one of the women on trial, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, told AFP.

The women's song called for Virgin Mary to "drive out Putin" and said that that the Patriarch should believe in God, not Putin.

The case raises uncomfortable questions over close ties between the Church and state.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill publicised the case with a mass prayer service outside the church, saying the women had desecrated holy relics, backed by video messages from celebrities.

Prosecutors in their indictment used religious language, accusing the women of "blasphemous acts" and inflicting "deep spiritual wounds on Orthodox Christians."

By pursuing the women, the authorities are returning a favour to a key ally, the Russian Orthodox Church, argued Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Centre of Political Technologies.

"The church has made it clear that it is completely on the side of the government and approves its anti-opposition position, saying protests are dangerous for society."

"The government feels indebted to those who helped it out."

Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova Center for Information and Analysis, said he believed the authorities made a test case out of the protest because offence to believers was "easier to explain to society, to its conservative part."

"In a sense the state made use of the Church," Verkhovsky said.

The Church can rally huge support. In November it took a relic from Greece on a tour of the country, attracting some three million worshippers and a five-kilometre (three-mile) queue in Moscow.

But Verkhovsky argued the Church was the ultimate loser.

"I think this plays against the Church. It is a major failure. It is simply a big mistake by Patriarch Kirill that he waded into this."

One outspoken and influential priest, Andrei Kurayev, told Rossiiskaya Gazeta state daily last month that "every day the group's members spend in detention works against the Church."

"This case has pushed educated and modern people away from the Church," said Makarkin.

But he argued that the trial did not reflect badly on Putin, since his supporters would "actively back harsh punishment or simply would not care."

Previously, Pussy Riot had sung a political protest song on tightly controlled Red Square, but the worst that happened to any of them was a fine.

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