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Pussy Riot punks compare trial to Stalinist repression

Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia.

MOSCOW: The lead singer of Pussy Riot compared the punk group’s trial to Stalin-era repression Wednesday in a dramatic finale to the hearing pitting the three women against the might of both the Kremlin and the Church.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova spoke hours after pop star Madonna and the artist and widow of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, joined calls for President Vladimir Putin to show mercy on his young and effectively powerless critics.

Prosecutors want the three to be sentenced to three years in a corrective labor facility on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after they performed a “punk prayer” against Putin in Moscow’s largest church.

Judge Marina Syrova will start reading her verdict on Aug. 17 after eight days of deliberations following a trial where she barred most of the defense witnesses from testifying.

The women’s lawyers have called for an international protest on the day of the verdict.

Speaking from inside the glass enclosure reserved for the defendants, Tolokonnikova compared the hearings to “troikas” – a powerful Russian term referring to tribunals during the Soviet dictator’s bloody purges.

“The court case comes close to the standards of Stalinist troikas, to my deep regret. We only have the investigator, the judge and the prosecutor,” she said.

“We see this as a political order for repressions,” Tolokonnikova added in a hushed courtroom packed with journalists and supporters.

The controversial case prompted Madonna to interrupt a stadium concert in Moscow Tuesday to tell the cheering crowd that she was praying for the band members’ freedom.

Ono for her part tweeted a message to Putin telling him he was making a mistake. “Mr Putin you are a wise man & don’t need to fight with musicians and their friends,” she wrote.

Tolokonnikova and her bandmates Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina pulled on colorful balaclavas inside Christ the Savior Cathedral on Feb. 21 and belted out a song asking the Virgin Mary to oust Putin.

“Virgin Mary, Mother of God, drive out Putin,” the three women sang in a punk anthem that condemned “the Church’s praise of rotten dictators” and urged religious leaders to embrace feminist values.

Putin was elected president for a third term two weeks later and authorities have since launched criminal probes against leaders of street protests in Moscow in the winter.

Defense attorney Mark Feygin said the judge was taking such a long break after expectations of a quick verdict because authorities had “to make the most difficult choice: 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,” Feygin told journalists.

Putin broke months of silence last week by saying that he did not like the band’s behavior but did not want them “judged too severely.”

The Russian court system has rarely issued verdicts in high-profile trials that contradicted the Kremlin’s interests during Putin’s 12 years in power as both president and prime minister.

Analysts said Putin was trying to distance himself from the damaging case.

“Putin is trying to put a brave face on this mess and distance himself from the Pussy Riot case, although this case still reeks of political involvement,” said Vladimir Oivin, deputy editor of Credo.ru religious news website.

“Putin spoke out for a mild verdict for the sake of his image,” said Olga Sibireva of the Sova Centre for Analysis. “If there is a guilty verdict, they can say Pussy Riot were convicted despite Putin and our court really is independent from the authorities.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 09, 2012, on page 10.

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