MOSCOW (AP) — Prosecutors on Tuesday called for three-year sentences for the members of a feminist punk band who performed an anti-Vladimir Putin stunt in Moscow's main cathedral, ignoring demands by human rights groups that the three women be set free.
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.
Prosecutor Alexander Nikiforov portrayed his request as lenient, saying the recommendation takes into account the fact that two of the defendants are young mothers and that they have good character references.
The hooliganism charges the three women of the Pussy Riot band face can carry a sentence of up to 7 years in prison.
The three women — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23; Maria Alekhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 — have been in custody for five months following the February stunt, in which they took over a church pulpit in Christ the Savior cathedral for less than a minute, singing, high-kicking and dancing.
Their case is part of a widening government crackdown on dissent that followed Putin's election in March and caused strong protests in Russia and abroad. Musicians including Madonna, the Who's Pete Townshend and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys have urged their release.
The verdict is expected this week.
The defendants have said their goal was to express their resentment over Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill's support for Putin's rule. But prosecutors have insisted throughout the trial that there were no political motives behind the performance.
"They set themselves off against the Orthodox world and sought to devalue traditions and dogmas that have been formed for the centuries," Nikiforov said Tuesday.
Members of the band say they did not mean to hurt anyone's religious feelings when they performed the "punk prayer."
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, authorities, not the girls, have dealt a crushing blow on the Russian Orthodox Church," Volkova said. "Time has turned back — back to the Middle Ages."
The trial has sharply divided Russia. Some believers felt insulted by the act, while others believe they are innocents who are being treated unfairly.
Mark Feygin, a lawyer for the band, argued that a guilty verdict would "break a bond between the government and people for good" and that "society will never forgive the state for persecuting the innocent."
Orthodox leaders have ignored calls by many believers to pardon the women and urge the court to dismiss the case.
Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev, an influential Orthodox blogger and Professor of 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 northern Russian monastery on Monday where a priest kneeled down to kiss his hand.
Though Putin was visibly annoyed by the display of deference, many Russians felt the incident accurately portrayed a too-cozy relationship between the 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.