By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's most famous prisoner said on Monday that three women from the Pussy Riot band may have gone too far by protesting on a cathedral altar, but likened their trial to a medieval inquisition and said their prison regime may amount to torture.
Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was tried in the same Moscow courtroom as the young women, called for leniency because of their age and said the way in which they were being treated brought shame on Russia.
Weighing into a debate surrounding the trial of Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, his intervention may bolster accusations by President Vladimir Putin's foes that the legal proceedings are politically motivated and part of a wider crackdown on dissent.
"It's painful to follow events in Moscow's Khamovnichesky court where Masha, Katya and Nadya are being tried," Khodorkovsky said in a statement on his website. "The word 'tried' can be used here only in the sense in which it was used by medieval inquisitors."
The trio are on trial for storming the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral on February 21 and belting out a profanity-laced "punk prayer" calling on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin. Their stunt infuriated church leaders and the Kremlin.
It also upset many Orthodox Christian believers for whom the cathedral is a sacred place of worship and its pulpit a place reserved exclusively for priests.
But Khodorkovsky - the 49-year-old former head of oil company Yukos who was arrested in 2003 and jailed the following year on fraud and tax evasion charges - pleaded their cause.
"The mistakes of radicalism can be excused by youth," he said. "I call on all thinking, educated and simply good and kind people to send words of hope to the girls."
Drawing on his own experiences, Khodorkovsky - who remains unpopular among many Russians who still see him as one of the country's "robber-barons" - said defendants in such a high-profile case were woken before breakfast and shuttled to court at the crack of dawn.
During an 11-hour day locked in a glass and metal courtroom cage known as "the aquarium", he said instant noodles were the only food served.
"I know what the aquarium in courtroom number seven is. They made it specially for us," Khodorkovsky said, referring to his own experience during the second of his two trials.
"You feel like a tropical fish," he said. "It's hot. The air conditioning doesn't circulate through the glass."
"IS THIS TORTURE?"
After a court session lasting late into evening, he said the women would arrive back at their cells after dinner and probably only have time to sleep about three hours before being woken for the next day of the trial.
The only time to shower is on Saturday, he added.
"I don't know how the girls can endure it," he said. "The judge of course knows about this regime. Is this torture?"
The Pussy Riot trio face up to seven years in jail in a trial that began on July 30 and is moving swiftly towards a conclusion. The defence team have said the verdict could be announced this week.
Khodorkovsky's comments are likely to fall on deaf ears in the Kremlin - it is well known that there is a deep-seated personal enmity between Putin and the jailed oligarch.
His intervention is also likely to have limited resonance among Russians, many of whom have no sympathy for a man who was once the country's richest before falling out with Putin a decade ago.
The first week of hearings in the Pussy Riot trial divided the mainly Russian Orthodox Christian country. Some believers want tough sentences but many others are calling for leniency, though few approve of their unsanctioned altar stunt.
Putin himself last week told reporters in London that there was "nothing good" about what the women had done but said they should not be judged too harshly.
The women said they did not intend to offend believers but wanted to highlight the close relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox church, whose leaders backed him in his successful presidential election campaign earlier this year.
At hearings last week, the women looked thinner and paler than when they were jailed. Last week Alyokhina felt ill and received medical attention during the trial.
However, the court has ignored complaints by the defence lawyers that the women are being deprived of food and sleep and are not getting a fair hearing.
Putin's critics regard Khodorkovsky as a political prisoner and hold up his case as an example of the Kremlin's ability to influence the judiciary.
But it is perhaps the Pussy Riot trial, because of its immediate impact and the colourful nature of the case, that is being seen as the latest test of his tolerance.
Critics have accused Putin - who returned to the presidency in May for a third term after the biggest protests against him since he rose to power in 2000 - of presiding over a new crackdown on dissent.
They have held up a tough new law that tightens control over foreign-funded lobby groups as evidence of that along with stricter Internet rules and a sharp rise in fines for protesters.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Andrew Osborn)