By Anna Malpas (AFP) – Aug 6, 2012
MOSCOW — Three members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, facing jail for ridiculing Vladimir Putin in a song, prepared for sentencing Monday after a court hearing one Western politician called "surreal."
The case in Moscow raced toward closing arguments and a possible verdict later this week, as the group found support as diverse as the Red Hot Chili Peppers rock band and bureaucrats in Brussels.
"I do not have a great confidence that they are actually getting a fair trial and being able to put their point across," said Britain's shadow foreign minister Kerry McCarthy, one of several foreign observers in the court.
"It is slightly surreal the way the judge breaks off the discussions at certain points. I don't think you would get that in the United Kingdom," McCarthy told AFP.
Britain and other Western states view Moscow's latest politically-tinged trial as a symbol of renewed pressure on freedoms in Russia since the ex-KGB agent Putin returned to the presidency for a third term in May.
The Kremlin has since introduced tougher penalties on protests and labelled Western-funded rights organisations "foreign agents" subject to stringent new government checks.
In the packed courtroom, lead singer Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sat inside a glass enclosure reserved for defendants as a handful of Western diplomats watched with concern on their faces.
The women, all in their 20s, have already served five months pre-trial detention.
The part-time musicians shot to prominence with anti-Putin stunts on Red Square and at other public venues before taking their performance in February to Moscow's massive Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
They were charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" after Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill denounced them as an affront to all religious Russians and demanded the most severe punishment possible under the law.
Putin himself weighed in on the incident during a visit to London last week, saying he personally thought the band "should not be judged too severely" while adding "there is nothing good in what they did."
Critics of Putin fear that Russia is already backsliding on the rights commitments it made during the four-year Kremlin term of Dmitry Medvedev -- a lawyer by training who now serves as prime minister.
Prominent heads of the youth-driven protest movement that shook Moscow last winter are now facing probes and various criminal charges, including anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, who faces up to 10 years in jail.
The Pussy Riot case stems in part from those protests when parts of the ruling elite -- including the Russian Orthodox Church -- began feeling waves of resentment for the first time since the days of the Soviet collapse.
Russian opinion polls show growing numbers condemning the group's performance while calling the state's response too harsh.
Yet the band members remain pessimistic after the judge threw out most of the planned defence testimony on Friday.
"The court is clearly interested in getting a guilty verdict and everything is heading in that direction," Samutsevich told reporters during a break in Monday's hearings.
"They are just considering the sentence."
An EU delegation to Russia and the head of the Council of Europe have issued statements in support of the women, and US pop legend Madonna is expected to face reporters' questions on the case ahead of her concert Tuesday at Moscow's Olimpiysky arena.
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