- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 7, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) - Prosecutors on Tuesday called for three-year prison sentences for feminist punk rockers who gave an impromptu performance in Moscow’s main cathedral to call for an end to Vladimir Putin’s rule, in a case that has caused international outrage and split Russian society.

Some Russians say the three women _ who have already been in jail for five months _ deserve to be punished for desecrating the Russian Orthodox Church and offending believers. Others insist that they are being punished for their political beliefs. The women, all in their 20s, said their goal was to express their resentment over the church’s open support for Putin‘ rule.

Dressed in homemade ski masks and miniskirts in garish colors, the Pussy Riot band members burst into a nearly empty Christ the Savior Cathedral and spent less than a minute belting out their “punk prayer” before being hustled out by security guards. Their February stunt was part of the protest movement that gathered strength over the winter and has come under increasing pressure since Putin won a third presidential term in March.

Prosecutors portrayed the proposed three-year sentences for the women as lenient, since the hooliganism charges they face carry a maximum sentence of seven years. Prosecutor Alexander Nikiforov said the recommendation takes into account that two of the defendants have young children and that they have good character references.

Putin said last week that the punishment should not be “too severe,” triggering speculation that the Kremlin was hoping to resolve the case without appearing weak or causing further anger on either side.

Defense lawyers and an influential Russian Orthodox cleric warned that jail time for the women could backfire by severing trust between ordinary Russians and the country’s institutions.

Closing arguments for the defendants _ Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23; Maria Alekhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 _ are scheduled for Wednesday. The judge’s ruling could come as soon as Wednesday, as well.

The trial began July 30, and the judge has been rushing through the testimony in what appears to be an effort to bring it to an end as quickly as possible in August, a month when many in Russia and abroad are on vacation or paying more attention to the Olympics than to politics.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell on Tuesday criticized the “disproportionate punitive measures” in the Pussy Riot case. “Rule of law remains a critical issue in Russia,” he said.

In Berlin, a group of German lawmakers sent a letter to the Russian ambassador describing the treatment of the punk rockers as “draconian and disproportionate.”

“In a secular and pluralistic state, peaceful artistic actions, even if they can be viewed as provocative, cannot lead to accusations of a serious crime and long detentions,” the letter said.

Prosecutors have insisted throughout the trial that there were no political motives behind the performance of the song called “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away.”

“They set themselves off against the Orthodox world and sought to devalue traditions and dogmas that have been formed for centuries,” Nikiforov said Tuesday.

Their supporters disagree. “It’s absolutely evident that if they had sung `Mother of God, Save Putin,’ there would have been no trial at all,” Yevgenia Albats, the editor of the New Times magazine, said Tuesday on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Larisa Pavlova, a lawyer for the church employees who were described as the injured party in the case, told the court on Tuesday that she supports the sentencing recommendation.

Pavlova said most hooliganism in Russia is committed when people are drunk and they often regret what they have done, but the defendants “thoroughly planned, rehearsed (their performance) and were fully aware of what they were doing.”

“And they had the audacity to say in court that they did the right thing, that it’s OK and that they’re ready to keep on doing such things,” Pavlova said.

Tolokonnikova chuckled as Pavlova mentioned in her speech that feminism in Russia is incompatible with Orthodox faith.

Pussy Riot lawyer Violetta Volkova voiced the band’s complaint that the women had been deprived of sleep and food throughout the trial, describing it as “torture.”

“In this trial, the authorities, not the girls, have dealt a crushing blow to the Russian Orthodox Church,” Volkova said. “Time has turned back _ back to the Middle Ages.”

Mark Feygin, a lawyer for the band, argued that a guilty verdict would “break a bond between the government and the people for good” and that “society will never forgive the state for persecuting the innocent.”

Orthodox leaders have ignored calls by many believers for the women to be pardoned and the case dismissed.

Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev, an influential Orthodox blogger and professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, warned in an interview with the RIA Novosti news agency on Tuesday that jail time for the three would “turn them into martyrs” and would only feed hostility toward the church.

Meanwhile, Russian Internet users were fuming over a video of Putin visiting a monastery in northern Russian on Monday where a priest kneeled down to kiss his hand.

Though Putin was visibly annoyed by the display of deference, many Russians felt it accurately portrayed a too-cozy relationship between the Kremlin leader and the Orthodox church.

The church said that the priest was from Macedonia, where it’s not unusual for men of the cloth to kiss the hands of laymen as a sign of humility.

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