Moscow church protest trial opens
A feminist punk rock group who staged a protest against Vladimir Putin in Moscow's main cathedral have gone on trial accused of hooliganism, facing up to seven years in prison.
The Pussy Riot band - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 - have been in custody for five months since their February stunt. Their prosecution has caused a sharp public divide and drawn protests from rights groups who have declared them prisoners of conscience.
The trial began on July 20 but the first sessions were devoted to procedural issues.
With the court turning to the substance of the case, Tolokonnikova and other defendants said in statements read by their lawyer that their goal was to express their resentment over Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill's support for Mr Putin's rule.
They pleaded not guilty to the official charges of hooliganism driven by "religious hatred." Tolokonnikova said she felt sorry if some of the believers felt insulted by their act, but that they did not mean to offend anyone. It was not clear how long the trial might last, but a court has recently ruled that the women should be kept in custody for another six month. Two other participants in the performance have not been identified and remain at large.
Mr Putin has avoided comment on the case, but many commentators believe that he has given his blessing to the prosecution as part of a crackdown on dissent following unprecedented protests in Moscow against his 12-year rule. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that was up to the court to issue a verdict.