MOSCOW: A Russian court on Monday adjourned an appeal hearing for three members of the Pussy Riot punk band against their conviction for a protest against President Vladimir Putin in a church after one of the trio sacked her lawyers.
About a hundred people - Pussy Riot supporters in colorful T-shirts as well as mainly elderly Russian Orthodox Christians - filled corridors of the Moscow court and others stood outside.
Pussy Riot supporters released three large balloons - a red, blue and a yellow one, all with captions reading "Pussy Riot!" - into the sky, while one Orthodox campaigner held up a banner declaring: "Shame to lawyers, prison for blasphemers".
One of the band, Yekaterina Samutsevich, sitting in a glass and metal courtroom cage alongside her two band mates, told the Moscow court she disagreed with her lawyers' handling of the case and the hearing was put off until October 10.
"My position on the criminal case does not match their (the lawyers') position," Samutsevich told the small courtroom, packed with supporters, family members and reporters. She gave no details.
Western governments have portrayed the three women's two-year sentences as excessive, and opposition groups see it as part of a crackdown on dissent by Putin, but many Russians regard the protest band as irreverent self-publicists.
Samutsevich, 30, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, in August were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after storming into the Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow in February and belting out a "punk prayer" asking the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
Mark Feigin, one of three defence lawyers, said he had learned about Samutsevich's decision only at the weekend and that it could weaken the three women's defence line in a case they say is politically motivated.
"The pressure is not subsiding. It continues and it would be naive to think that the authorities will just let it go," said another defence lawyer, Nikolai Polozov.
"From various sides they are trying to weaken their position. They have the line of not admitting guilt, and consider that they have committed only an administrative offence," he added. "The authorities don't like that."
CASE DIVIDES RUSSIANS
Global celebrities, including British musician Paul McCartney and U.S. pop singer Madonna, called for leniency for the women before their verdict on Aug 17.
But their two-year sentences were seen by the opposition, and by some Western governments, as part of increasingly aggressive tactics against the opposition following the biggest protests of Putin's 12-year rule of Russia.
Since Putin's return to the Kremlin in May for a six-year term, parliament has expelled an opposition leader and approved laws raising fines for protesters, stiffening punishment for defamation and tightening checks on foreign-funded lobby groups.
Another bill under consideration in parliament, where Putin's United Russia has a majority, would institute jail terms of up to three years for offending religious feelings.
A group of Orthodox believers quoted the law in their request to prosecutors in Russia's south-western city of Rostov-on-Don to ban staging rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar in a local philharmonic, local officials said.
"We have received a motion from believers to take the musical down. We have suspended ticket sales for half a day to consider the rightfulness of the motion and then resumed the sales, all is normal," said the philharmonic's Svetlana Zhabina.
Vladimir Legoida, a senior church spokesman, said on Sunday the trio's stunt "must not remain unpunished whatever the justification," but urged them to repent.
A pardon or a reduced sentence would require the women to admit guilt but they have refused to do so.
The band members say their protest near the altar, in bright ski masks, tights and short skirts, was not intended to offend believers and was motivated by anger over Putin's closeness to Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Kirill, who once likened Putin's spell over Russia to a "miracle of God", says only close ties between the state and the church can ensure development of society.
A recent official opinion poll showed that more than half of Russians are critical of what Pussy Riot did and consider their two-year jail sentence to be a just one, with less than a third saying the opposite.
Many Russian Orthodox believers consider Christ the Saviour one of the most revered holy sites in the country, where religion has flourished since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and considered the protest a sacrilege.