Maxim Shemetov / Reuters
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of female punk band Pussy Riot, is escorted by police as she arrives at a Moscow court on Monday.
Updated at 9:20 a.m. ET: MOSCOW - Three women who protested against Vladimir Putin in a "punk prayer" on the altar of Russia's main cathedral went on trial Monday in a case seen as a test of the longtime leader's treatment of dissent during a new presidential term.
The members of the band Pussy Riot face up to seven years in prison for an unsanctioned performance in February in which they entered Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, ascended the altar and called on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out!"
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, were brought to Moscow's Khamovniki court for Russia's highest-profile trial since former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2010.
Governments and rights groups, as well as musicians such as Sting, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Franz Ferdinand, have expressed concern about the trial, reflecting doubts that Putin - who is serving his third presidential term and could be in power until 2024 - will become more tolerant of dissenting voices.
On Monday, supporters chanted "Girls, we're with you!" and "Victory!" as the women, each handcuffed by the wrist to a female officer, were led from a white and blue police van into the courthouse through a side entrance. Streets around the court, on a high Moscow River embankment, were closed.
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They were led into a metal and clear-plastic courtroom cage, where they milled and spoke with lawyers as preparations began. Tolokonnikova, in a blue checkered shirt, lowered her head to speak through a small opening in the enclosure. Two pairs of handcuffs hung at the ready just beside her face.
Three female punk rockers are put on trial in Russia after taking over the pulpit at an Orthodox cathedral and performing a controversial song criticizing President Putin. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.
"We did not want to offend anybody," Tolokonnikova said, speaking to a defense lawyer who stood outside the enclosure. "We admit our political guilt, but not legal guilt."
The band's stunt was designed to highlight the close relationship between the dominant Russian Orthodox Church and former KGB officer Putin, then prime minister, whose campaign to return to the presidency in a March election was backed clearly, if informally, by the leader of the church, Patriarch Kirill.
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Symbolically, the trial is taking place in the same Moscow courthouse where Khodorkovsky was found guilty of stealing his own oil in a trial in 2010 that many Western politicians said looked like a crude Kremlin attempt to keep a man it saw as a political threat behind bars.
'Our motives are exclusively political'
The women are charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.
But in opening statements read by a defense lawyer, who sometimes struggled with the handwritten texts, they said they were protesting against Kirill's political support for Putin and had no animosity toward the church or the faithful.
"I have never had such feelings toward anyone in the world," Tolokonnikova said in her statement. "We are not enemies of Christians ... our motives are exclusively political."
"We only want Russia to change for the better," she said.
Alyokhina's statement said: "I thought the church loved all its children, but it seems the church loves only those children who love Putin."
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters
Maria Alyokhina, a member of Pussy Riot, arrives at a Moscow court on Monday.
The women looked thinner and paler than they did when they were jailed following the performance in late February, shortly before Putin, in power as president from 2000-2008 and then as prime minister, won a six-year presidential term on March 4.
"She looks like she has been on a long hunger strike," Stanislav Samutsevich said of his daughter. "Her cheeks are hollow … I've never seen her in such a state. I think this is like an inquisition, like mockery."
A reporter on state-run Rossiya-24 television presented a different picture, focusing on occasional smiles and chuckles and an overall air of self-assuredness among the women, who whispered to each other as a prosecutor read the charges.
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"Look at their faces; they are laughing and joking," the reporter said on the news, adding that a viewer might think they were "continuing the action" they carried out at the cathedral.
Prosecutors asked for the trial, which was streamed live on the Internet, to be closed to the public and the media, saying a "rift in society" and emotions over the case put the defendants and other participants at risk.
Pussy Riot, who say they were inspired by bands such as Bikini Kill from the 1990s-era Riot Grrrl U.S. feminist punk movement, burst onto the scene this winter with angry lyrics and envelope-pushing performances, including one on Red Square, that went viral on the Internet.
The collective see themselves as part of a disenchanted generation that is looking for creative ways to show its dissatisfaction with Putin's dominance of the political landscape.
The all-girl group has no lead singer, and, in order that anyone may join, its members don multi-colored balaclavas, which have become its trademark. They numbered five when they formed in November but later expanded to 10 members, though there have been no performances in Russia since their bandmates' arrest.
Among the group's most noted outrageous acts was the drawing of an enormous phallus on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg. Several members participated in an obscene "fertility rite" at Moscow museum, mocking Dmitry Medvedev, who was elected Russian president the next day.
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'Russian superhero' needed?
One member of the group, who spoke to Britain's The Observer newspaper, said members of the band masked their faces to appear anonymous in public to show that "everybody can be Pussy Riot." The 25-year-old, who spoke via video while in hiding for fear of arrest, went by the nickname "Sparrow."
She said a "Russian superhero" was needed at the moment. Wearing masks and costumes during performances, "Sparrow" told The Observer, felt like "having a second life. It's like being Spider-Man or Catwoman. ... When I'm in a mask I feel a little bit like a superhero. I feel more power. I feel really brave. I believe that I can do everything and can change the situation."
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She also told the newspaper: "It's a bit scary but we're sure what we are doing is right. … When you're doing the right thing you're not scared. Because it's horrible what's happened to the girls."
Anthony Kiedis and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers spoke out in support of the group during the Calif. funk-rock band's July 22 concert in Moscow. Kiedis wore a Pussy Riot t-shirt on stage and both musicians gave letters to Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, according to The Guardian newspaper.
The unsanctioned performance that prompted the arrest of three Pussy Riot members offended many believers in predominantly Orthodox Christian Russia, where the church has enjoyed a huge revival since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
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But while some two-thirds of the country's 142 million people are considered Russian Orthodox, the number of practicing churchgoers is far smaller in a nation where the legacy of decades of official atheism looms large.
Patriarch Kirill has said the church was "under attack by persecutors" and has encouraged pro-church demonstrations including a procession to Christ the Savior in April.
"This is only the small, visible tip of an iceberg of extremists," Mikhail Kuznetsov, a lawyer representing church security guards, said in an interview with the newspaper Moscow News last week. "They are aiming to destroy the thousand-year-old traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, to provoke a schism, and to deceivingly bring the flock not towards God, but towards Satan."
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'Harmless civil activity'
The defendants' supporters say the charges are politically-motivated.
In a poll by the independent Levada Center and released by the prominent newspaper Kommersant earlier this month, 50 percent of Muscovites said they did not support a criminal trial for the members of Pussy Riot, with 36 percent supporting the trial.
Pussy Riot's cathedral performance was part of a lively protest movement that at its peak saw 100,000 people turn out for rallies in Moscow, some of the largest in Russia since the demise of the USSR.
Reuters, The Associated Press and NBC News staff contributed to this report.
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