Three members of a Russian band have pleaded not guilty to charges related to a protest against President Vladimir Putin. The case has been widely criticized outside of Russia but split opinion inside the country.
Three members of a punk rock band have pleaded not guilty to charges of hooliganism related to a high-profile protest against the Russian presidential election last March. At the same time, though, they expressed regret for any offense they may have caused to Orthodox Christians.
In February, the three Pussy Riot members, wearing masks, entered the Orthodox cathedral in Moscow, went to the altar and conducted a "punk prayer" in which they called on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin. A number of other people took part in the protest but escaped arrest.
One of the defendants, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, said the protest was "a desperate attempt to change the political system. We had no intention of insulting people. We did not expect our punk appearance would cause offense."
"The fact we do not accept guilt in the charges does not mean we are not ready to admit our mistakes. If someone was insulted then I am prepared to accept that we made an ethical mistake," her statement said.
Another of the accused, Yekaterina Samutsevich, stressed that the target of their protest was not the Orthodox church, but the "illegitimacy of the elections" and "the calls (by the Patriarch) to vote for Putin and not go to the protest rallies."
Those two, along with the third defendant, Maria Alyokhina, have been in custody since their arrest shortly after conducting the protest. They appeared inside an enclosed defendant's box on Monday, and their statements were read out in the courtroom by a defence lawyer.
Earlier, the three women, all of whom are in their twenties, responded to a series of formal questions from the judge about things like their citizenship, education and whether they had ever been convicted of a crime.
This is the most closely watched criminal case in Russia since the second trial of former oil magnate Mikhail Khordorkovsky in 2010, and it's also being heard in the same Moscow courtroom.
Criticism at home and abroad
The case has split public opinion in Russia, with Orthodox Church officials condemning the protest as being part of a campaign by "anti-Russian forces."
However, the three women, all in their 20s, also have a lot of supporters, some of whom cheered them as they were led in handcuffs from a police van into the courthouse.
"This has nothing to do with the law, it is a political reprisal," opposition parliamentarian Gennady Gudkov said.
The case has also been criticized by international human rights groups such as Amnesty Interational, which has called for their release.
The charges are not a "justifiable response to the peaceful - if, to many, offensive - expression of their political beliefs," Amnesty said in a statement.
Russian Prime Ministry Dimitry Medvedev, though, dismissed criticism of the case, saying in an interview with the Times of London that there would always be "different perceptions about what is acceptable and not acceptable from a moral point of view and where moral misbehavior becomes a criminal action."
The court, he said, would decide "whether that is the case here."
If convicted, the three women, two of whom have young children, could face up to seven years in prison. At an initial hearing earlier this month, the court ordered them to be held in custody until at least next January.
pfd/mz (Reuters, AFP, dpa)