Anti-Putin punks on trial in Moscow

The trial of feminist punk rockers who chanted a "punk prayer" against President Vladimir Putin from a pulpit inside Russia's largest cathedral has started in Moscow amid controversy over the prank that divided devout believers, Kremlin critics and ordinary Russians.

Five members of Pussy Riot - wearing brightly coloured homemade ski masks and miniskirts - briefly seized one of the pulpits of Moscow's main Orthodox church, the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, in February and chanted "Mother Mary, drive Putin away".

A video of the performance posted on the internet shows churchgoers astonished as the women chant, high-kick and dance, and then appear to bow and bless themselves as security guards arrive to remove them.

Three band members - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 - were arrested and face up to seven years in jail on hooliganism charges.

Their trial has begun in Moscow's Khamovniki district court.

The court building was surrounded by dozens of riot policemen, along with the band's supporters and critics.

Their cause and the Russian Orthodox Church's harsh response have provoked public outcry and deeply polarised Russia.

The church said the women deserve to be prosecuted for their "blasphemous" performance from a place near the altar that no lay people are allowed to enter, although thousands of believers have signed a petition urging the church to forgive the band.

Pussy Riot gained notoriety in January for performing a song entitled Putin Chickens Out from a spot in Red Square used in czarist Russia for announcing government decrees. Videos of their performances became instant internet hits.

The band's "punk prayer" took place two weeks before March's presidential vote in which Mr Putin won a third term despite a wave of massive protests against his rule.