Russia detains four at Pussy Riot protest outside church

Russian police arrested four activists who demonstrated outside a landmark Moscow church in support of members of protest punk band Pussy Riot who are now on trial.

Nearly 20 demonstrators, wearing the group's trademark coloured balaclavas, held up individual letters that spelled a New Testament phrase, "Blessed are the merciful," in support of the female musicians.

They held their protest outside the Russian capital's Church of Christ the Saviour, where Pussy Riot performed their "punk prayer" against strongman Vladimir Putin in February.

Three band members are on trial for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Prosecutors have asked for three years' prison for the young women, and the judge will begin reading her verdict on Friday.

In Wednesday's protest, security guards from the church broke up the demonstration before police arrived.

"As a result, four people have been detained," a Moscow police spokesman told AFP, adding that they would likely face administrative charges.

The Ridus citizen journalism website posted a video of white-shirted security guards approaching the activists and pulling away the letters of the protest message before chasing off demonstrators and journalists.

"The guards of the church used physical force, not only on the activists but on journalists covering the protest," a photographer from the liberal daily Novaya Gazeta wrote on the newspaper's website.

Rustem Adagamov, a prominent blogger who was involved in the protests against the re-election of Putin as president this year, wrote on Twitter that the guards "broke cameras and beat up several people".

Several security guards and other workers in the Church of Christ the Saviour testified as victims in the trial.

If a Moscow judge sends the three young Pussy Riot punk rockers to a corrective labour facility on Friday, they could face the harshest conditions possible for jailed women, sharing barracks with more than 100 others.

The state prosecutor said the women deserved "isolation from society" for staging a protest stunt against Putin in a cathedral, saying they should serve three years in a penal colony with a "general regime".

Ringed with high fences, barbed wire and watchtowers and set in the countryside, more than 40 such corrective labour colonies around Russia currently house some 59,000 women.

The women have complained of inhumane treatment during their trial, receiving little or no food during 10-hour days in court and preparing their defence only at night.

But the way the young women have been treated -- described eloquently in the courtroom by the women and their lawyers -- is nothing unusual in the Russian prison and court systems, experts told AFP.

Defence lawyer Violetta Volkova said this month she would complain to the European Court of Human Rights over the women's "torture" as they face three years in prison for their "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin in Moscow's main church.

"They have been deprived of sleep. They have not been properly fed, they have been humiliated," she said.

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