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 Continued...