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Russians fear Pussy Riot trial is just the start

The women who make up the punk group Pussy Riot are being prosecuted for "religious hatred," which many Russians see as the Kremlin's latest tactic for silencing dissent.

By Correspondent / August 6, 2012

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (r.), a member of the female punk band 'Pussy Riot,' is escorted by police before a court hearing in Moscow, August 6.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

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Moscow

The Moscow trial of three young punk rockers, known as the Pussy Riot women, is expected to wind up later this week. But the controversies set off by the high-profile prosecution and harsh treatment of the women – whose original crime was a 40-second "punk prayer" in an empty church that damaged no property and harmed no one – are likely to reverberate for months to come, regardless of what verdict is handed down by Moscow's Khamovnichesky District Court. 

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The most important question hanging over the trial is why they are being prosecuted for the very serious crime of aiming to incite "religious hatred" – which carries a sentence of two-to-seven years in jail – when the women themselves insist they are baptized Christians who had no intention of offending believers. They insist they were protesting the Orthodox Church's explicit political endorsement of Vladimir Putin, who was still running for president on the night of their Feb. 21 performance. 

The latest person to weigh in on the case is Russia's best-known prisoner, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has now spent almost a decade in prison after being twice convicted, in the same Moscow courtroom, on charges that most observers believe were politically motivated. 

In a statement posted on his defense lawyer's website, Mr. Khodorkovsky said the Pussy Riot trial is yet another sign that Russia under Vladimir Putin is not a rule-of-law state but a nation where courts obey political dictates, meting out punishment to those who criticize the Kremlin while ignoring the mass corruption and official abuses of those in power. 

"I am very ashamed and hurt," Khodorkovsky wrote. "Not because of these girls – the mistakes of youthful radicalism can be forgiven – but for the state, which is profaning our Russia with its complete and utter lack of conscience… We have been deprived of an honest and independent judiciary, of the opportunity to defend ourselves and to protect people from lawlessness." 

"I don’t know how the girls endure it," he added. 

The three Pussy Riot women were arrested after they voluntarily left the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow following their brief Feb. 21 performance, but police merely took down their names and quickly released them. Legal experts say that's probably how big city cops in almost any country would handle a minor disorder of that sort. 

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