The criminal trial of the young musician-activists has become a touchstone in the Russian capital, which is still trying to come to grips with the ramifications of the big street protests that preceded and followed Vladimir Putin's election to a third term as president.

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MOSCOW — At the opening of their trial on charges of inciting religious hatred, three young women whose performance of an anti-government song in a Russian Orthodox cathedral has become a cause célèbre denied the formal criminal accusations read aloud by prosecutors Monday.

Facing up to seven years in prison if convicted, the three members of the punk band, called Pussy Riot, said they intended no offense to Orthodox Christians in their profane performance, which they described as a political demonstration.

In February, they entered the Russian Orthodox cathedral dressed in colorful outfits and hoods to perform what they called a “punk prayer” begging the Virgin Mary “to drive (Vladimir) Putin away.”

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“If someone was offended by our performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, I am ready to recognize that we committed an ethical mistake,” said Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, in a prepared statement read by her lawyer, Violetta Volkova.

Tolokonnikova was held in a glass-enclosed box, along with her co-defendants, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, throughout the daylong proceedings in a downtown courtroom.

The criminal trial of the young musician-activists has become a touchstone in the Russian capital, which is still trying to come to grips with the ramifications of the big street protests that proceeded and followed Vladimir Putin’s election to a third term as president.

At the end of June, more than 100 celebrities — including actors, writers and artists — signed an open letter demanding the three feminists be freed and their case be requalified from criminal to administrative.

The case has become a measure of the Kremlin’s resolve in squelching political dissent expressed in unsanctioned settings, beyond the boundaries of organized rallies with official permits and police standing by.

It has also put three very human and, in many ways, sympathetic, faces on the political opposition movement. The three slender women hardly cut the image of dangerous criminals, and Tolokonnikova has a 4-year-old daughter.

Their fate is being decided in the same courtroom where Putin’s archrival, former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was convicted in a case that activists also charge was politically motivated.

In addition, the case has thrown a spotlight on the increasingly close relationship between the government and the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, which has positioned itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to become a potent political force.

The opening of the trial was just one of several developments Monday highlighting the Kremlin’s efforts to tighten control in the face of still-simmering opposition. Putin signed two new laws, one stiffening the penalties for libel and another giving the government new authority to shut down websites that publish content deemed harmful to children.

Meanwhile, federal investigators Monday summoned the anti-corruption advocate Alexei Navalny, who is one of the most prominent leaders of the political opposition, to appear in a criminal case against him that could result in a sentence of up to five years in prison.

The case, which dates to 2009 when Navalny acted as an unpaid adviser to the governor of the Kirov region, alleges he pressured a government-owned timber company into signing a contract that resulted in financial losses.

Navalny is expected to be indicted Tuesday, and could be jailed pending his trial, his lawyers said.

In the trial over the song at the church, defense lawyers asked to call expert witnesses who could discuss political performance art, and they renewed a request to call Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the church, to testify as an expert on Orthodox religious doctrine.

But the judge, Marina Syrova, rejected the requests, after objections.

“We are not here to discuss a political case, not the question of the election of our State Duma or president,” said Larisa Pavlova, a lawyer representing people who were said to have been offended by the performance. “We are investigating a criminal case: the act of hooliganism under religious motives.”

The defendants, who had been quickly hustled out of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral by guards in February, “intended to cause heavy emotional suffering to persons who found their spiritual beginning in the Orthodox religion” with their punk prayer, according to the indictment read by the prosecutor.

Prosecutors have said that at least 10 victims suffered “moral damage” as a result of the performance. In court Monday, they read the lengthy criminal accusations aloud, and said the defendants intended to inflict “grievous mental suffering.”

The persons in question — several nondescript burly men, the cathedral guards and two middle-aged women who serve as temple aides — nodded their heads to the prosecutor’s monotone recital as they stared at the floor.

In response to the charges, the defendants said they were not guilty.

“Yes, we violated the rules of the Orthodox Church; yes, I admit that,” Tolokonnikova said.

She was interrupted by Syrova, who reminded her that she was only supposed to give her plea in response to the charges.

“Yes, I understand,” Tolokonnikova said, adding, “But it was not criminal.”

In a motion, Tolokonnikova said in a statement that the punk group’s action was nothing more than a politically colored artistic performance. “We simply react to what is happening in our country, as the times dictate to us the themes of our songs and performances,” said the statement, which was read by her attorney, Violetta Volkova.

Their action, she said, was a protest to the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchy’s support of Putin’s successful bid for a third term as president.

“By the song ‘Mother of God, drive Putin away!’ we depicted the reaction by many Russian citizens to the appeal by the Patriarch (Kirill) to vote for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in March 4 election.”

“We are not enemies to Christianity and the opinion of the believers is important to us,” the statement said.

Kirill drew criticism from independent media and especially on the Internet after in February he called the women’s performance “an act of blasphemy and spiritual villainy of such a scale that shouldn’t go unnoticed.”

On Monday, he issued no fresh statement.

The defendants’ lawyers were full of pessimism as they spoke with reporters during a long court day filled with numerous defendants’ motions denied and the prosecutors’ motions accepted.

“Judging by the way the trial began, the decision (verdict) has already been passed,” lawyer Mark Feygin said. “I have no doubt that the court will find the young women guilty.”

The women’s offense should not be treated as a crime, former Constitutional Court judge Tamara Morshchakova said Monday.

“In any normal country, they wouldn’t be sitting in jail,” she said in a phone interview. “They have been punished way, way more than they deserve.”

But not all were united in support of the defendants.

“The girls on trial are nothing but scum and they deserve as tough a punishment as possible,” said Yevgeniya Klyucharyova, a 63-year-old pensioner who stood nearby. “They jeered at all the sacred history of holy Russia and now these ugly hooligans become heroes!”

Not far from them, a group of teenagers with hoods sat on the pavement holding a poster demanding that the judge should “stop the madness.”

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