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After more than five months in prison, some Russian dissidents are getting their day in court. Three young women are alleged to be members of a feminist punk band that staged a protest against Vladimir Putin last February.

As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow, their case is widely viewed as a test of the way Putin's government will handle dissent.

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COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The band calls itself Pussy Riot. Here's what they did that caused all the fuss.

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FLINTOFF: In February, five members of the band rushed before the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, one of Moscow's main Russian Orthodox cathedrals. They wore the outfits that had become their signature: minidresses, tights and brightly colored balaclava masks. Before they were thrown out by security people, band members brandished guitars, danced, genuflected and prayed. Shortly afterward, a video of their exploit was posted on YouTube.

The song takes the form of a punk prayer, asking the Virgin Mary to deliver Russia from Putin. It also criticizes the leader of the church, Patriarch Kirill, for supporting Putin's presidential campaign, saying the patriarch believes in Putin when he should believe in God. The band had already gained attention for its street-theater tactics.

SCHUMACHER: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: In February, one of the band members, who identified herself only by the nom-de-guerre Schumacher, told NPR that she believed the Russian opposition was ready for more radical action. The Russian government was apparently ready too. Shortly after the cathedral performance, three alleged band members were arrested and charged with hooliganism motivated by hatred of the church. It's a crime that carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison.

The three women - 23-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24-year-old Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich who is 29 - have been in jail ever since. There have been pleas for mercy for the women, two of whom are the mothers of small children. The pleas have come not just from members of the opposition but from some Orthodox believers who say the church should show mercy, even though they say they found the performance to be deeply offensive.

But Patriarch Kirill called the performance blasphemy and demanded tough punishment for the band members. This morning, a lawyer for the women, Violetta Volkova, told reporters outside the courthouse that the trial was political, aimed not at protecting the church but at punishing opposition to the government.

VIOLETTA VOLKOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Volkova says that what's taking place in the courtroom now is lawlessness and legal nihilism on the part of the government. Later on in court, Volkova read out statements from the defendants, who pleaded not guilty but said they were sorry if their actions offended believers. Maria Lipman, an editor and analyst from the Carnegie Center in Moscow, stands on the sidelines outside the court. She says she thinks the prosecution will seek to get the trial over fairly quickly before it draws too much more attention and criticism.

MARIA LIPMAN: The authorities want to have this trial passed on as soon as possible, so that this irritant, this event that attracts so much attention is out of Moscow, and crowds like this one today will not gather.

FLINTOFF: The trial resumes tomorrow. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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