Musicians face up to seven years in jail

MOSCOW — In a case that has divided Russia, three members of anti-Putin feminist punk band Pussy Riot pleaded not guilty to charges of hooliganism as their trial began in Moscow on Monday

Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich — two of them mothers to young children — have spent five months in pre-trial detention after staging a brief, obscenity-laced musical protest in Moscow’s cathedral of Christ the Saviour, calling on the Virgin Mary to “throw Putin out.” They face seven years in jail if found guilty.

Initially released in February by police on the grounds that they had not committed a crime, the women were arrested early March after the deeply conservative Russian Orthodox Church condemned their protest as blasphemous.

Their plight has become a defining symbol for the wave of popular protests against President Vladimir Putin’s regime, and won the support of more than 100 Russian actors, directors and musicians.

A YouTube video of an earlier protest gig in Red Square went viral, attracting more than a million views, and the Pussy Riot cause has been taken up by Sting, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Franz Ferdinand, who criticized the arrests during recent performances in Moscow.

Madonna, who plays Moscow soon, is being urged to take up their cause.

Putin, a former KGB agent who has played the nationalist and religious card throughout his three terms in office, is believed to support the trial.

Dmitry Medvedev, former president and now prime minister, urged the world to “wait for the verdict” before condemning Russia in an interview Monday with London’s Times.

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