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Pussy Riot trial sends warning shot toward anti-Putin protesters

Critics argue that the growing list of Russian state actions against opposition figures is part of a creeping crackdown aimed at quashing new protests in September.

By Correspondent / August 1, 2012

Maria Alekhina, left, Yekaterina Samutsevich, top, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, right, members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot are seen behind a glass wall at a court in Moscow, Monday, July 30.

Mikhail Metzel/AP

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Moscow

In the depths of mid-summer, when most Russians are on vacation or cultivating their dacha gardens, authorities are busy reshaping the country's political landscape. When the new political season opens in September, and anti-Putin protesters attempt to return to the streets after a summer hiatus, opposition activists may find themselves facing a dramatically changed playing field, in which harsh new penalties abound for those who commit even minor infractions.

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Critics argue that the growing list of state actions against opposition figures this summer is part of a "creeping crackdown" on all forms of civic disobedience that is likely aimed at quashing any reemergence of the protest movement in September.

“All the political ground is shifting under our feet this summer, and it's becoming clear that Putin is no longer trying to be the president of all Russians but is reinforcing his own conservative base by giving them what they want," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

That future arguably is already here for three young women, members of the edgy feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot, who face up to seven years' imprisonment for allegedly performing a 40-second "punk prayer" last February at the altar of Moscow's premier Orthodox cathedral, in which the masked singers implored the Virgin Mary to "redeem us from Putin."

Their trial, which began this week, has created a storm of commentary on Facebook and other social media websites, despite severe courtroom access restrictions that have been slapped on the press by nervous authorities.

Opinion polls uniformly show that the vast majority of Russians felt deeply offended by what they view as sacrilegious behavior. They generally react negatively to the Pussy Riot women's image, who launched their band a year ago modeled after the 1990s British punk band Riot grrrls.

But growing numbers of Russian artists, legal experts, and intellectuals – including some top officials and members of the clergy – are publicly expressing their uneasiness over the extended pretrial detention of the women, two of whom are mothers of young children, the harshness of their potential punishment, and the flimsy legal underpinnings of their case.

Their trial appears to be more about extracting revenge on behalf of the church and the conservative majority, experts argue, than about enforcing the law in a secular society which is enshrined in the Russian Constitution (Article 14).

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