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More prison for feminist punk rockers riles liberal Russians

A Russian court refused to grant bail on Monday to three alleged members of the controversial feminist rock band Pussy Riot for alleged hooliganism.

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A poll conducted by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center in March found that 46 percent of Russians agreed that a potential seven-year jail term was "adequate" punishment for what the women did. Another 35 percent thought it was "too harsh," while just 9 percent believed the group's actions should not be subject to criminal prosecution at all.

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"The majority of people are negative toward what Pussy Riot did, with elderly people more so than younger ones," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center. "Most people do not perceive their action as simple hooliganism but as a profanation of sacred values, which calls forth feelings of anger and indignation."

But those numbers may not be as comforting for the Kremlin, or the church, as they may seem. When Russian legal experts are consulted, they tend to express concern at what they see as an abuse of the law.

"There's no question the Pussy Riot women behaved outrageously, not as decent people should," says Yury Kostanov, a former prosecutor and an expert with the Independent Judicial Expertise Council in Moscow. "But there is no corpus delicti [evidence of a crime having taken place] here. Not every instance of disgraceful behavior can be prosecuted as a crime, and this one is extremely dubious. The length of time these women have been kept behind bars already is cause for extreme unease."

Public revenge

Valery Borshchev, chairman of the Russian Ministry of Justice's own public oversight commission, says that the three women are clearly not dangerous, nor can the two mothers be regarded as serious flight risks, and therefore under the normal workings of Russian courts they should have been released by now.

"It's hard to avoid the impression that this is a case of open revenge, with unusual imprisonment the instrument of obtaining public emotional satisfaction rather than justice," he says.

"In my personal opinion, the way this case is being carried on is a response to the personal offense felt by the Moscow Patriarchate. This is not wise, because it's leading at least a section of society to question the authority of the Church. These women might be convicted in the end, but in the eyes of the public the authorities will lose."

According to Andrei Titushkin, deputy press secretary of the Moscow Patriarchate, officials of the Orthodox Church will not be giving any comments on the case until the trial is over. Three months ago, however, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a top church official, did speak to the Monitor at some length about the issue.

Even Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev, a professor at the church's Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy and one of Russia's top Orthodox academics, says he feels increasingly uneasy about the way the case is being handled.

"Every day these women spend in detention is another blow for our church," he says.

"My religious feelings are insulted over the fact that they are kept in jail. I think our church leaders might already be sorry that they allowed this to happen. A pastor should never stir up hatred in a crowd."

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