Russian activists plead not guilty in church protest case

  • Mon Jul 30th, 2012 2:43pm
  • News

By Sergei L. Loiko Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Three Russian musicians went on trial Monday for less than a minute of political theater in February, when they entered a Russian Orthodox cathedral dressed in colorful outfits and hoods to perform what they called a “punk prayer” begging the Virgin Mary “to drive (Vladimir) Putin away.”

They could face seven years in prison if convicted.

The three women, members of a feminist punk group with a profane name, have already spent five months in jail and have become a cause celebre for those opposed to the Russian leader’s rule. Their fate is being decided in the same courtroom where Putin’s archrival, former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was convicted in a case that activists also charge was politically motivated.

On Monday, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, were read the indictment accusing them of premeditated act of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They pleaded not guilty.

The defendants, who had been quickly hustled out of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral by guards in February, “intended to cause heavy emotional suffering to persons who found their spiritual beginning in the Orthodox religion” with their punk prayer, according to the indictment read by the prosecutor.

The persons in question – several nondescript burly men, the cathedral guards and two middle-aged women who serve as temple aides – nodded their heads to the prosecutor’s monotone recital as they stared at the floor.

In a motion, Tolokonnikova said in a statement that the punk group’s action was nothing more than a politically colored artistic performance. “We simply react to what is happening in our country, as the times dictate to us the themes of our songs and performances,” said the statement, which was read by her attorney, Violetta Volkova.

Their action, she said, was a protest to the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchy’s support of Putin’s bid for a third term as president, which he eventually won.

“By the song ‘Mother of God, drive Putin away!’ we depicted the reaction by many Russian citizens to the appeal by the Patriarch (Kirill) to vote for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in March 4 election.”

Tolokonnikova’s statement said that “if our show in Christ the Savior Cathedral was insulting to somebody,” she was ready to admit that they “had committed an ethical error.”

“We are not enemies to Christianity and the opinion of the believers is important to us,” the statement said.

Long before the trial began, many Russian activists, among them some supporters of Putin, had begun to question the young women’s continuing imprisonment. At the end of June, more than 100 celebrities – including actors, writers and artists – signed an open letter demanding the three feminists be freed and their case be requalified from criminal to administrative.

Kirill drew criticism from independent media and especially on the Internet after in February he called the women’s performance “an act of blasphemy and spiritual villainy . of such a scale that shouldn’t go unnoticed.”

On Monday, he issued no fresh statement.

The defendants’ lawyers were full of pessimism as they spoke with reporters during a long court day filled with numerous defendants’ motions denied and the prosecutors’ motions accepted.

“Judging by the way the trial began, the decision (verdict) has already been passed,” lawyer Mark Feygin said. “I have no doubt that the court will find the young women guilty.”