Pussy Riot members guilty of hooliganism

Three members of the provocative punk band Pussy Riot have been found guilty of hooliganism, in one of the most closely watched cases in recent Russian history.

The judge in the Moscow court said today the trio committed hooliganism driven by religious hatred and offending religious believers.

They were arrested in March after an unauthorised performance in Moscow’s main cathedral calling for the Virgin Mary to protect Russia against leader Vladimir Putin.

They face a maximum seven years in prison. The sentence is to be pronounced later today.

Mr Putin was elected to a new term as Russia's president a few days after the protest.

The case has attracted international attention as an emblem of Russia’s intolerance of dissent.

It also underlines the vast influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although church and state are formally separate, the church identifies itself as the heart of Russian national identity and critics say its strength effectively makes it a quasi-state entity.

Protests timed to just before the verdict or soon afterward were planned in more than three dozen cities worldwide.

Prosecutors have asked for three-year sentences, down from the possible seven-year maximum and Mr Putin himself has said he hopes the sentencing is not “too severe”.

Celebrities including Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bjork have called for them to be freed, and protests are planned around the world today.

Before today’s proceedings began, defence lawyer Nikolai Polozov said the women “hope for an acquittal but they are ready to continue to fight”.

There was a heavy police presence around the court building in central Moscow, where hundreds of protesters and band supporters were gathering.

Even if the women are sentenced only to time already served, the case has already damaged Russia’s reputation abroad and stoked the resentment of opposition supporters who have turned out in a series of massive rallies since last winter.

The case comes in the wake of several recently passed laws cracking down on opposition, including one that raised the fine for taking part in an unauthorised demonstrations by 150 times to 300,000 roubles (€7,300).

Another measure requires non-government organisations that both engage in vaguely defined political activity and receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents”.

By the time the court started reading the verdict, hundreds of Pussy Riot supporters filled a narrow street outside the court, chanting “Russia without Putin!” amid heavy police presence.

Police rounded up some of the protesters, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is a leading opposition activist, and leftist opposition group leader Sergei Udaltsov.

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