Pussy Riot trial 'worse than Soviet era'
Judge refuses to allow 10 defence witnesses while lawyer claims women are being tortured with lack of food and sleep
By the end of the first week of Pussy Riot's trial, everyone in the shabby Moscow courthouse was tired. Guards, armed with submachine guns, grabbed journalists and threw them out of the room at will. The judge, perched in front of a shabby Russian flag, refused to look at the defence. And the police dog – a 100lb black Rottweiler – no longer sat in the corner she had occupied since the start of Russia's trial of the year, but barked and foamed at the mouth as if she were in search of blood.
The trial of the three band members, jailed since March after performing a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin in Moscow's main cathedral, has been about more than the charges brought against them – formally, hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. In five days of testimony, lawyers and witnesses have laid bare the stark divide that has emerged in Russian society: one deeply conservative and accepting of a state that uses vague laws and bureaucracy to control its citizens, the other liberal bordering on anarchist and beginning to fight against that state with any means it can.
The court is dominated by a glass cage that holds the three women – Maria Alyokhina, who has emerged as their unofficial spokeswoman; Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, whose chiselled features have made her the band's unofficial face; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who sits in a corner of the cage looking every bit the disgruntled punk.
After five days' sitting in the cage, some days for 10 hours at a time, the women appear exhausted. Violetta Volkova, one of their lawyers, said they were being tortured – denied food and adequate sleep. After a week of being dismissed and lectured by the judge, she could no longer hide her anger. On Friday, as the judge, Marina Syrova, denied yet another defence objection, Volkova began to shout.
Syrova, her glasses forever perched perfectly in the middle of her nose, answered tartly: "You're losing the frames of dignity."
"Those frames long haven't existed here," Volkova replied, seething.
According to Pussy Riot's lawyers, Russia has revived the Soviet-era tradition of the show trial with its case against the group. "Even in Soviet times, in Stalin's times, the courts were more honest than this one," lawyer Nikolai Polozov shouted in court. Outside, during a rare break, he explained: "This is one of the most shameful trials in modern Russia. In Soviet times, at least they followed some sort of procedure."
In one week, Syrova has refused to hear nearly all the objections brought by the defence. One objection claimed that exactly the same spelling errors were found in several witness statements, implying they were falsified.
The prosecution was allowed to call all its witnesses, mainly people who were inside the church at the time of the performance or who had viewed a video of it on YouTube. They answered questions like: "What does your Orthodox faith mean to you?", "Was the women's clothing tight?" and "What offended you about their balaclavas?"
One witness said she heard music during the band's performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, although footage shown in court showed the women singing with no live instruments. The music was added later to their viral video clip, "Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Out!"
"What kind of music did you hear?" asked the defence. "It wasn't classical – and it wasn't Orthodox," the witness replied.
The defence, meanwhile, tried to call 13 witness, including opposition leader Alexey Navalny and celebrated novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya. Syrova only allowed them to call three. The prosecution launched the questioning of all its witnesses with the same question: Are you an Orthodox believer? When the defence tried to ask the same question of one of its three witnesses, Syrova shouted: "Question stricken."
The defence knows they are fighting a losing battle in a judicial system that is notoriously politicised. But the media battle remains. Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, has spent the trial perched in the seat closest to his wife's cage. He tweets furiously, and constantly checks how often his message is spread.
On Friday, three men climbed on to a ledge across from the courtroom windows, wearing white, purple and green balaclavas and shouted "Freedom to Pussy Riot!". There have been reports of imitation stunts carried out in other cities in Russia.
"At first, after the [anti-Putin] protests started in December, the authorities got scared that they had lost control," Polozov said. "Now they've recovered and have started to react – and the trial against Pussy Riot is the clear first step."
Every day as the trial begins, dozens of journalists gather on the stairs outside the court, repeating a tradition launched with the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon and Putin foe, which was held in the same room.
Amid the crush stands Samutsevich's father and Alyokhina's mother, Natalya.
"My daughter and I had very different views about politics," Alyokhina said. "But this trial is bringing them closer."
Putin said this week that the women should not be judged "too harshly". They face up to seven years in jail if convicted but their lawyers took Putin's comments as a signal that they would not receive the full sentence. A verdict is expected next week.