Moscow - Three women who protested against Vladimir Putin in a "punk prayer" on the altar of Russia's main cathedral went on trial on Monday in a case seen as a test of the longtime leader's treatment of dissent during a new presidential term.
The women from the band Pussy Riot face up to seven years in prison for an unsanctioned performance in which they entered Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral wearing masks, ascended the altar and called on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out!"
Maria Alyokhina, aged 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, aged 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, aged 29, were brought to Moscow's Khamovniki court for the trial, Russia's most prominent since former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted for a second time - in the same courtroom where the Pussy Riot trial began - in 2010.
Supporters chanted "Girls, we're with you!" and "Victory!" as the women, each handcuffed by the wrist to a female officer, were led from a white and blue police van into the courthouse through a side entrance. Streets around the court, on a high Moscow River embankment, were closed.
They were led into a metal and clear-plastic courtroom cage, where they milled and spoke with lawyers as preparations began. Tolokonnikova, in a blue chequered shirt, lowered her head to speak through a small opening in the enclosure.
One by one, the women stood and answered a series of questions from the judge, such as their educational level, citizenship and birthdates of their children. Asked whether she had ever been convicted of a crime, Tolkonnikova answered, "No".
The women looked thinner and paler than they did when they were jailed following the performance in late February, shortly before Putin, in power as president from 2000-2008 and then as prime minister, won a six-year presidential term on 4 March.
Their protest offended many believers and enraged the head of the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.
The church, which has enjoyed a big revival since the demise of the officially atheist Communist Soviet Union in 1991 and is seeking more influence on secular life, cast the performance as part of a sinister campaign by "anti-Russian forces".
A group of conservative Russian writers called on Monday for tough punishment. But Kremlin opponents, rights activists and supporters of the defendants say the charges are politically motivated.
"This has nothing to do with the law, it is a political reprisal," said opposition lawmaker Gennady Gudkov. "[The prosecution of] Pussy Riot is of course an unprecedented case of stupidity and brutality on the part of the authorities."
The performance, a protest against the church's support for Putin, was part of a lively protest movement that at its peak saw 100 000 people turn out for rallies in Moscow, some of the largest in Russia since the demise of the USSR.
The plight of the three women, who have been held in a courtroom cage during pre-trial hearings, has also drawn attention in the West, where governments are closely watching how Putin will handle dissent.
Rights groups and musicians such as Sting and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have expressed concern about the trial, reflecting doubts that Putin - who could serve until 2024 if re-elected in six years - will become more tolerant.
Amnesty International has called for the release of the defendants, two of whom have young children, saying the charges are not a "justifiable response to the peaceful - if, to many, offensive - expression of their political beliefs".
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev dismissed criticism of the case in remarks published on Monday, saying the trial was a "serious ordeal" for the defendants and their families but that "one should be calm about it" and await the outcome.
"It seems to me that there will always be different perceptions about what is acceptable and not acceptable from a moral point of view and where moral misbehaviour becomes a criminal action," he told the Times of London in an interview.
"Whether that is the case here is up to the court to decide," he said, according to a Russian government transcript.
Few Russians believe the country's courts are independent, however, and Medvedev acknowledged during his 2008-2012 presidential term that they were subject to political influence and corruption.
"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.