- Associated Press - Thursday, April 19, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) - Three female punk rockers who mocked Vladimir Putin in a surprise protest inside Russia’s main Orthodox church will be kept in jail, a Moscow court ruled Thursday.

Five members of the feminist band Pussy Riot _ clad in brightly colored homemade ski masks and miniskirts _ briefly seized the pulpit of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February and chanted “Mother Mary, drive Putin away.”

Three band members have been in police custody since March and face up to seven years in jail on charges of hooliganism. Their cause _ and the harsh response of the Russian Orthodox Church _ has provoked a public outcry and criticism of Russia’s largest religious institution.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich will remain in detention until June 24, a Tagansky district court judge decided, after an investigator petitioned to keep them in prison while the police investigation continues.

The band’s performance “in a holy place was illegal and utterly cynical,” investigator Artyom Ranchenkov said in televised remarks.

Pussy Riot gained notoriety in January for performing a song taunting Putin from a spot on Red Square from a spot used in czarist Russia for announcing government decrees. Video of their performances became instant Internet hits.

The band’s unauthorized “punk prayer” took place two weeks before March’s presidential vote in which Putin won a third presidential term despite a wave of massive protests against his rule.

Band member Tolokonnikova complained of the medical care offered in the pretrial center and ironically suggested that the officials and clerics who initiated the trial should experience jail life themselves.

“Medical care is absolutely absent. I’ve been having terrible headaches for more than a week,” the 22-year-old performance artist told journalists from a cage in the courtroom. “For those who jailed us, I and my cellmates send our best wishes. We wish them to live in conditions we’ve been living in for the past month and a half.”

Tolokonnikova is also a member of the War art group whose controversial projects and performances targeted and ridiculed the Kremlin and Russian security agencies.

In 2008, she participated in an obscene “fertility rite” organized by philosophy students at Moscow State University and dedicated to the newly-elected President Dmitry Medvedev.

Supporters of the band, including prominent artists, musicians and activists, organized a protest festival outside the court Thursday. About 200 people gathered in the courtyard, some carrying balloons and posters, and chanted “Freedom!” when the women were taken into the court.

Police arrested more than 30 demonstrators outside the court before the hearing.

Orthodox activists also rallied, provoking Pussy Riot supporters and throwing eggs at Tolokonnikova’s husband.

The Russian Orthodox Church says the women deserve to be prosecuted for their “blasphemous” performance from a place near the altar that no lay persons are allowed to enter, although thousands of believers have signed a petition urging the church to forgive the band.

Attorneys for the arrested band members argued that the women should be released because they have young children.

Although church and state are separate under Russia’s constitution, the Russian Orthodox Church has claimed a leading role in setting moral guidelines for society. Its growing prominence has caused concern among followers of minority faiths and nonreligious Russians.

The Church has called for tighter controls on the content of television broadcasts and for the banning of books such as Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.”

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