Pussy Riot compare trial to Stalin-era 'repression'

The lead singer of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot compared the group's trial to Stalin-era repression on Wednesday in a dramatic final statement before the verdict is delivered later this month.

The call came as voices ranging from those of Madonna and Yoko Ono to the lawmakers of Germany joined a chorus of global calls on President Vladimir Putin to show mercy to his young and relatively powerless critics.

Prosecutors are asking the court to sentence the three punk rockers to three years in prison on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for bursting into Moscow's biggest church on February 21 and singing a "punk prayer" against Putin.

The charges carry a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.

The presiding judge will start reading her verdict on August 17 after eight days of deliberations following a trial that saw most of the defence witnesses barred by the court.

Lead singer Nadezhda Tolokonnikova compared the hearings to the "troikas", or special tribunals used by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during his bloody purges of the 1930s to remove his political foes.

The trial was "a political order for repression (that meets) the standards of Stalinist troikas," she said from inside the glass enclosure that separated defendants from supporters who squeezed into the small courtroom.

The case has stirred divisive passions in Russia and saw US pop icon Madonna interrupt her packed concert in Moscow on Tuesday night to tell the cheering crowd that she was praying for the band members' freedom.

Ono for her part tweeted a message to the strongman Russian leader telling him he was making a mistake.

"Mr Putin you are a wise man & dont need to fight with musicians & their friends," the artist and widow of John Lennon wrote.

Tolokonnikova and her band-mates Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina pulled on knitted balaclavas and burst into the Christ the Saviour Cathedral on February 21 to ask the Virgin Mary to oust the veteran Russian strongman.

"Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away," the band sang. It condemned "the Church's praise of rotten dictators" and urged religious leaders to embrace feminist values.

Putin was elected president for a third term by a thumping margin just two weeks after Pussy Riot's performance. The authorities have since launched criminal probes against top leaders of the street protests that briefly shook his rule in the winter months.

Tolokonnikova predicted "the collapse of this political system" and said the entire way Putin ran the country was being put on trial.

Co-defence team attorney Violetta Volkova said the judge was taking such a long break after expectations of a quick verdict because "they will have the most difficult choice on whether to punish the innocent."

"If they are issued real sentences, that means the authorities have made their choice. It will clearly mean the authorities have chosen the path to dictatorship," Volkova said.

Putin broke months of silence last week by saying that he did not like the band's behaviour but did not want them "judged too severely."

The Russian court system is formally independent of the Kremlin but has rarely issued verdicts in high-profile trials that contradicted its interests during Putin's 12 years in power as both president and prime minister.

A source close to the Kremlin was quoted as saying on Wednesday that the court might pass a lighter sentence while still issuing a guilty verdict.

"Otherwise there would still be a question over why they were even detained," a parliament source close to Putin's administration told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

"The sentence will probably account for time served and possibly slightly exceed it. It would be foolish to release the Pussy Riot women right then and there in court," the source said.

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