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Pussy Riot Trial in Moscow Erupts in Chaos

Feminist punks have been jailed for performing a 'punk prayer' in a cathedral

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot attend trial in Moscow.
REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
August 3, 2012 6:10 PM ET

The central Khamovniki court in Moscow erupted in chaos Friday when defense witnesses for Pussy Riot – the three feminist punk rockers charged in what many consider a political show trial – were denied the opportunity to testify on the musicians' behalf.

After the prosecution read a statement from their absent last witness (the senior priest at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral), the Pussy Riot defense team demanded that Judge Marina Syrova order guards to let in their witnesses, who have been kept out of the building. Syrova repeatedly ignored motions for witness testimonies. A huge barking Rottweiler kept in the courtroom, and three men in balaclavas outside yelling "Free Pussy Riot," escalated the mayhem.

Two of the girls' college professors and a friend were allowed to testify on the defendants' character. One noted that bandmember Maria Alyokhina, 24, is a poet who volunteers at a hospital run by a Christian Orthodox organization. Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, was characterized as a good student. A witness who was supposed to testify on the character of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, could not be found.

Samutsevich, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have been on trial since Monday. They were arrested in early March for performing a "punk prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and posting a video of the performance on the Internet. They have been in jail since.

A yellow dress and blue balaclavas were presented as evidence Friday, sparking laughter from the women and journalists observing the proceedings.

The prosecution questioned four other witnesses this week, including two women who cleaned the Bogoyavlensky Cathedral, where part of the video was filmed; a real estate agent who saw the video online and believes Pussy Riot declared war on God, Christianity and the government; and Samutsevich's father, who called the arrest and trial absurd.

The arrest and the trial are the result of direct Kremlin orders to quash any form of political protest, charged Alyokhina's lawyer, Nikolai Polozov.

The trial has aroused wide public response. Amnesty International declared the musicians prisoners of conscience, and several musicians, including Patti Smith and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have called for their release.

Syrova pushed some sessions this week up to 12 hours, which is a sign that the authorities want to close the case as soon as possible, according to Polozov. The longer the trial lasts, the more controversy it appears to be gathering.

On Thursday the Russian law association published an open letter, signed by 35 prominent lawyers, declaring that the Pussy Riot cathedral performance was no crime. President Vladimir Putin told journalists in London Thursday that although he believes there is nothing good about what the women have done, they should not be punished too severely.

But such statements have had no effect on the trial, Polozov said. "This isn't a trial – it's total chaos," he said.

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