Moscow court finds Pussy Riot guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred
The judge has not yet sentenced the three women. On 21 February, the latter had carried out a "prayer" to Our Lady against Putin in the capital's St Saviour's Cathedral. Outside the courthouse, thousands of people are waiting for sentencing to be read. Demonstrations are held in favour of the three women in 54 cities around the world.

Moscow (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The Khamovniki District Court in Moscow sentenced three members of the punk-rock collective 'Pussy Riot' to two years in prison for "hooliganism [. . .] motivated by religious hatred." Judge Marina Syrov read out her decision at 6 pm, local time. The trial, which has attracted hundreds of journalists from around the world, also drew a crowd of thousands who protested outside the courthouse. Police eventually proceeded to arrest some demonstrators who were demanding the prisoners' release, including Left Front coordinator Serghei Udaltsov.

On 21 February, the three women-Alyokhina (24), Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (29)-and other members of the group performed a song at the altar of Saint Saviour Cathedral, shocking the worshippers present.

The lyrics, which called on the Virgin to "throw Putin out," also slammed the close ties between Orthodox Church leaders and the president, whom they accuse of using his relationship with high ranking clerical officials to stay in power.

The protest enraged the Orthodox Church, which responded accusing the group of hooliganism and insulting religious faith.

Over the past few months, the Pussy Riot affair became a worldwide cause célèbre. Today, protests are expected in 54 cities, including New York, London, Madrid, Berlin, Sydney, Paris and Warsaw.

The group's supporters have gathered in front of the courthouse in Khamovniki District, where the trial is being held. Activists in Russia's main cities have covered statues with colourful balaclavas, the group's symbol.

In recent days, singers and other artists like Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel and Madonna as well as other rock singers and Hollywood actors have spoken out in favour of three women, who have come to symbolise freedom of expression.

At a concert in Moscow on 8 August, Madonna read messages defending the three women, drawing the ire of Russian Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin.

The affair has in fact split Russian public opinion between those who want exemplary punishment for the insult to the nation's religious sentiments and those who defend the group members as representatives of freedom of expression.

In an open letter to President Putin published last night, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said, "Our jailing is a clear and distinct sign that freedom is being taken from everyone in the country."

Two members of the "Pussy Riot" collective who are still at large, in an interview posted on the Afisha portal, described their action in the cathedral as "successful," claiming that it boosted "Pluralism [. . .], both political and religious".

Calling themselves anarcho-individualists and feminists, the fugitives said that their three colleagues' imprisonment "gives a stimulus" to the cause. This way, "the work and ideas of 'Pussy Riot' may advance yet further."

In the hours leading up to the sentence, some elderly people holding an icon outside the courthouse called for the three women to be punished.

"Maybe what they did was morally wrong," said a 25-year-old woman, yet "is it worth all this [the conviction]?" Indeed, the three women "shouldn't go to prison for just expressing themselves. The Kremlin is just being reactionary and giving in to more conservative forces."

Conversely, it is also possible that the trial might not only boost the anti-Putin opposition, but it may also increase resentment and contempt for the Orthodox Church in particular and religion in general.

In Kiev, Ukraine, earlier today, a half-naked activist from the Femen group chopped down a wooden cross using a chain saw in protest at the Pussy Riot trial.