By Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Members of the Pussy Riot punk band likened themselves to Soviet-era dissidents on Wednesday, saying their trial for performing an anti-Kremlin stunt on a cathedral altar was unjust, but that nobody could take away their inner freedom.
To occasional bursts of applause from supporters, the three women were making their last pleas before a court rules whether they are guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for storming the altar of Moscow's biggest cathedral and beseeching the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin.
The state prosecutor has asked the court to sentence them to three years in jail in a case that is being seen as an early test of how much dissent Putin - who returned to the presidency in May for a third time - is willing to tolerate.
"I am not afraid of your poorly concealed fraud of a verdict in this so-called court because it can deprive me of my freedom," Maria Alyokhina, one of the three, said. "No one will take my inner freedom away."
The women - Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 - looked pale and tired as they addressed the Moscow court from a glass and metal cage before the judge adjourned the trial until August 17, when the verdict will be issued.
Tolokonnikova welcomed the latest display of support from abroad after American singer Madonna donned the band's trademark balaclava and stripped to a black bra to show their name on her back during a concert in Moscow on Tuesday night.
"Katya (Samutsevich), Masha (Alyokhina) and I are sitting in jail but I do not believe we have been defeated, just like the dissidents were not defeated. Lost in psychological hospitals and prisons, they served out their sentences."
Friends and family applauded her in the courtroom.
"With every day, more and more people believe us, and believe in us, and think we should not be behind bars," Tolokonnikova said, leaning forward to address the court through a tiny window in the glass and metal cage.
"I want to cry when I see how the methods of the medieval inquisition preside over Russian law enforcement and the judicial system," she said in a speech peppered with literary references, including to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose writing documented life in the Gulag Soviet prison system.
Quoting lyrics from Pussy Riot performances, at one point the courtroom burst into applause, prompting the judge to call for calm.
"We are not in a theatre," the judge said.
PROTESTS AGAINST PUTIN
Pussy Riot, an all-women collective, formed last October in protest against Putin's domination of Russia and his plan, now fulfilled, to return to the Kremlin in a March election.
The band members see themselves as part of a protest movement that last winter organised the biggest demonstrations since former KGB spy Putin first rose to power in 2000, at times attracting crowds in Moscow of 100,000.
In their protest on February 21, Pussy Riot wore colourful balaclavas, short dresses and bright tights as they burst into the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in central Moscow and belted out a "punk prayer" to the Virgin Mary to "Throw Putin out!"
They say they did not mean to offend Orthodox Christian believers, but aimed to highlight the close relationship between Putin and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who called the Russian leader's 12-year rule "a miracle of God".
The Kremlin is in a tight spot. In a country where few believe in the independence of the judiciary, it might be applauded by its critics if the sentences are relatively lenient.
But if the sentences are seen as too lenient, church leaders - who along with believers upset by the performance have been demanding tough sentences - may be angry.
The case is seen by the opposition as part of a wider crackdown on dissent by Putin following the protests that preceded his return to the Kremlin.
Since his return - after serving as prime minister for four years - Russia has toughened rules governing the Internet, increased fines for protesters and introduced new controls for foreign-funded lobby and campaign groups.
(Additional reporting and writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Andrew Osborn)