MOSCOW – A Moscow court on Friday launched the trial of three feminist rockers who face a possible seven years in prison for performing a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin from the pulpit of Russia's largest cathedral.
The case of the three members of the band Pussy Riot has deeply divided Russia, pitting advocates of openness against the forces of order and the powerful Russian Orthodox Church. The three had been held in jail for more than four months without a single court hearing.
The February stunt, two weeks before the election that returned Putin to the presidency, was designed to offend. Five members of Pussy Riot -- wearing brightly colored balaclavas and miniskirts -- briefly took over the pulpit at Christ The Savior Cathedral, chanting "Mother Mary, drive Putin away" and high-kicking cancan-style.
What happened after security guards seized the five was extraordinary -- even for a country whose leaders have shown little patience for protest. Three of the band members, two of whom have young children, were thrown into jail and face charges of hooliganism that could bring them seven years if convicted.
Supporters of the three say their jailing and charges are a draconian demonstration of how the church holds heavy sway in the government.
At Friday's preliminary hearing, prosecutors asked that the women -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 -- be held in custody for at least six more months as the trial progresses. Defense attorneys have repeatedly asked for them to be released, in particular so they can take care of their young children.
The Khamovniki District Court building on Friday was surrounded by dozens of riot policemen, along with the band's supporters and critics. The court proceedings were closed to the public.
The church says the women deserve to be prosecuted for their "blasphemous" performance from a place near the altar on which no lay people are allowed to stand. But thousands of believers have signed a petition urging the church to forgive the band.
Although church and state are separate under Russia's constitution, the Russian Orthodox Church has claimed a leading role in setting moral guidelines for society. Its growing prominence has caused concern among followers of minority faiths and nonreligious Russians.
The case has particularly rattled the Russian intelligentsia. In late June, over one hundred artists and intellectuals -- pro- and anti-Putin alike -- sent an open letter to the state, calling for the women's release.
In a poll by the independent Levada Center and released by the prominent newspaper Kommersant on Friday, 50 percent of Muscovites said they did not support a criminal trial for the members of Pussy Riot, with 36 percent supporting the trial.
Pussy Riot gained notoriety about a month before the arrest by performing a song titled "Putin Chickens Out" from a spot on Red Square used in czarist Russia for announcing government decrees. Videos of their performances became instant Internet hits.
On Wednesday, the chairman for the parliamentary committee for Family, Women and Children issues Elena Mizulina, called for authorities to look into earlier alleged misbehavior of the three women, who were participants in Voina (War), an art-protest group.
Among the group's most noted outrageous acts was the drawing of an enormous phallus on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg. Tolokonnikova was among the participants in a 2008 obscene "fertility rite" at Moscow museum, mocking Dmitry Medvedev, who was elected Russian president the next day. Alekhina released a video for the group in which she masturbated in a grocery store with a chicken leg.
The three women face criminal charges for "hooliganism." The language of both state officials and the prosecution has been more moralistic than legal.
"This is only the small, visible tip of an iceberg of extremists," Mikhail Kuznetsov, a lawyer representing church security guards, said in an interview with the newspaper Moscow News on Thursday. "They are aiming to destroy the thousand-year-old traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, to provoke a schism, and to deceivingly bring the flock not towards God, but towards Satan."