Three young women who staged a punk-rock protest against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's main Orthodox church will go on trial in a case seen as a test of Russia's tolerance of dissent.
The women, part of a band called Pussy Riot who have been held in pre-trial custody for almost five months, face up to seven years in jail on Monday over charges of hooliganism for storming the altar in multi-coloured masks to sing a "punk prayer" to the Virgin Mary to "Throw Putin Out!".
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, were jailed in late February after taking to the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
Governments and rights groups, as well as musicians such as Sting and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have expressed concern about the trial, reflecting doubts that Putin - who is serving his third presidential term and could be in power until 2024 will become more tolerant of dissenting voices.
"The court's decision will depend not on the law but on what the Kremlin wants," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a Soviet-era dissident and veteran human rights activist who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group.
Charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility, the women face up to seven years in prison if convicted - a punishment rights groups say would be grossly disproportionate no matter what the law says.
Pussy Riot, who say they were inspired by 1990s-era feminist US punk bands Bikini Kill and Riot Grrl, burst onto the scene this winter with angry lyrics and envelope-pushing performances, including one on Red Square, that went viral on the internet.
The collective, who say they average 25 years of age, see themselves as the avant-guard of a disenchanted generation that is looking for creative ways to show its dissatisfaction with Putin's 12-year dominance of the political landscape.
The all-girl group has no lead singer, and, in order that anyone may join, its members don multi-coloured balaclavas, which have become its trademark.
They numbered five when they formed in November but later expanded to 10 members, though there have been no performances in Russia since their bandmates' arrest.
The February 21 protest, exposed deep divisions over the church leadership's backing for Putin and the scale of punishment faced by the women, two of whom have young children.
The Orthodox Church has asked for the women to be treated severely.
The prosecution called the protest by the group as "a malicious, carefully planned act to denigrate the feelings and beliefs of the many Orthodox Christian worshippers and to belittle the state's spiritual foundation".
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|Timothy V. Gatto|