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Punk group Pussy Riot due in court over pro-gay Putin protest

Human rights campaigners call for Russian female punk band members to be released after four months in detention
Pussy Riot sang protest song in Moscow's Orthodox cathedral

Russian female punk band Pussy Riot are due to appear in court today (23 July) over an anti-Putin protest which spoke out for gay rights.

Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are accused of 'hooliganism on the grounds of religious hatred' after singing a protest song in Moscow’s main Orthodox church.

The performance of 'Virgin Mary redeem us of Putin' included a reference to the country's persecuted LGBT community with the line 'Gay pride sent to Siberia in chains' and was staged on 21 February to rally against the president ahead of the country's elections in March.

The trio have been in detention for four months now and face possible prison sentences of up to seven years. A court ruled on Friday (21 July) that the women must remain in pre-trial custody for six months.

Human rights group Amnesty International are calling for the 'immediate release' of the women, insisting they are prisoners of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs.

Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia director, John Dalhuisen, said: 'These three activists have now been behind bars for months, awaiting a trial that should not be taking place.

'Even if the three arrested women did take part in the protest, the severity of the response of the Russian authorities and the detention on the serious criminal charge of hooliganism would not be a justifiable response to the peaceful, if, to many, offensive, expression of their political beliefs.

'The Russian authorities must drop the charges of hooliganism and immediately and unconditionally release these three women.'

During the demonstration in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, several group members covered their faces with balaclavas.

The song called on Virgin Mary to become a feminist and banish Vladimir Putin. It also criticized the dedication and support shown to Putin by some representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian authorities subsequently arrested Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova on 4 March, and Ekaterina Samutsevich on 15 March, claiming they were the masked singers.

One of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, has admitted to being a member of the larger Pussy Riot group and taking part in the protest, while the other two deny any involvement in the cathedral protest.

'Even if the action was calculated to shock and was known to be likely to cause offence, the activists left the Cathedral when requested to do so and caused no damage,' Dalhuisen added.

'The entire action lasted only a few minutes and caused only minimal disruption to those using the Cathedral for other, notably religious, purposes.

'The broader political context surrounding the anti-Putin protests at the time, and the anticlerical, anti-Putin content of the activists’ message, have clearly and unlawfully been taken into account in the charges that have been brought against them.'

A video montage of the song available on the internet has led to a wide debate about the protest.

The press secretary of President-elect Vladimir Putin called the protest despicable and said it would be followed up 'with all the necessary consequences'.

Although a representative of the Orthodox Church initially called for mercy for the protesters, subsequent statements by representatives of the church have called for harsh punishment and for the women to be prosecuted for inciting hatred on grounds of religion. The women’s relatives have reportedly also received anonymous death threats.

Amnesty has pointed out that the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held that freedom of expression applies not only to inoffensive ideas, 'but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population'.

Pussy Riot was formed in 2011 and has conducted several performances in public places such as the Moscow underground, Red Square and on the roofs of buses.

In media interviews the group members have stated that they protest against, among other things, stifling of freedom of expression and assembly in Russia, the unfair political process and the fabrication of criminal cases against opposition activists.

Watch the protest video below:

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