Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Musicians on Trial Over Crude Anti-Putin Song in Moscow Cathedral


July 30, 2012

Musicians on Trial Over Crude Anti-Putin Song in Moscow Cathedral


MOSCOW — At the opening of their trial on charges of inciting religious hatred, three young women who performed a crude anti-Putin song on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior said on Monday that they were prepared to take responsibility for “an ethical mistake.” But they denied the formal criminal accusations read aloud by prosecutors.

Facing up to seven years in prison if convicted, the three women, members of a punk band called Pussy Riot, said they intended no offense to Orthodox Christians with their profane performance, which they described as a political demonstration.

“We just were not thinking that our action would be offensive to someone,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, said in a statement read by her lawyer, Violetta Volkova. Ms. Tolokonnikova was held in a glass-enclosed box, along with her co-defendants, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, throughout the daylong proceedings in a downtown courtroom.

“If someone was offended by our performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, I am ready to recognize that we committed an ethical mistake,” Ms. Tolokonnikova told the judge in her handwritten statement. “This is exactly the error, since we did not have the conscious intention to offend anyone.”

The criminal trial of the young musician-activists has become a touchstone in the Russian capital, which is still trying to come to grips with the ramifications of the big street protests that preceded and followed Vladimir V. Putin’s election in May to a third term as president.

The case has become a measure of the Kremlin’s resolve in squelching political dissent expressed in unapproved settings. It has also put three very human and, in many ways, sympathetic faces on the political opposition movement.

Flanked by police officers and armed special forces troops, the three women hardly cut the image of dangerous criminals. Ms. Samutsevich seemed dazed and stared off into space as her father, sitting in the courtroom, signaled to her to listen to the judge. Ms. Tolokonnikova, who has a 4-year-old daughter, traded concerned glances with her husband.

The case has thrown a spotlight on the increasingly close relationship between the government and the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, which has positioned itself, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to become a potent political force.

Tempers flared when Ms. Alyokhina insisted several times that she did not understand the “ideological” elements to the charges against her and could not submit a plea. “You have a higher education!” the judge replied, before asking the prosecutor to repeat the charges.

The opening of the trial was just one of several developments on Monday highlighting the Kremlin’s efforts to tighten control in the face of still-simmering opposition. Mr. Putin signed two new laws, one stiffening the penalties for libel and the other giving the government new authority to shut down Web sites that publish content deemed harmful to children.

Also on Monday, federal investigators summoned the anticorruption advocate Aleksei Navalny, one of the most prominent leaders of the political opposition, to appear in a criminal case against him that could result in a sentence of up to five years in prison. The case, which dates from 2009, when Mr. Navalny acted as an unpaid adviser to the governor of the Kirov region, alleges that he pressured a government-owned timber company into signing a contract that resulted in financial losses.

Mr. Navalny is expected to be indicted on Tuesday, and he could be jailed pending his trial, his lawyers said.

In the trial over the song, defense lawyers asked to call expert witnesses who could discuss political performance art, and they renewed a request to call Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the church, to testify as an expert on Orthodox religious doctrine.

But the judge, Marina Syrova, rejected the requests, after objections.

“We are not here to discuss a political case, not the question of the election of our State Duma or president,” said Larisa Pavlova, a lawyer representing people who were said to have been offended by the performance. “We are investigating a criminal case: the act of hooliganism under religious motives.”

Prosecutors have said at least 10 victims suffered “moral damage” as a result of the performance, in February. In court, they read the lengthy criminal accusations aloud, and they said the defendants had intended to inflict “grievous mental suffering.”

In response to the charges, the defendants said they were not guilty. “Yes, we violated the rules of the Orthodox Church; yes, I admit that,” Ms. Tolokonnikova said. She was interrupted by Judge Syrova, who reminded her that she was only supposed to give her plea in response to the charges. “Yes, I understand,” Ms. Tolokonnikova said, adding, “but it was not criminal.”

Ellen Barry contributed reporting.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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