MOSCOW — Three jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot told a Moscow appeals court on Wednesday that they should not be imprisoned for their irreverent protest against President Vladimir Putin, insisting that their impromptu performance inside Moscow's main cathedral was political in nature and not an attack on religion.
Dressed in neon-colored miniskirts and tights, with homemade balaclavas on their heads, the women performed a "punk prayer" asking Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin as he headed into a March election that would hand him a third term. They were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison.
"We didn't mean to offend anyone," said Maria Alekhina, who along with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich spoke in court from inside a glass cage known colloquially as the "aquarium." She said they were protesting Putin and also the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy for openly supporting his rule.
"We went to the cathedral to express our protest against the joining of the political and spiritual elites," Alekhina said.
A ruling on their appeal was expected later Wednesday.
The case has been condemned in the U.S. and Europe, where it has been seen as an illustration of Putin's intensifying crackdown on dissent after his return to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
Putin, however, recently said the court ruled correctly because "It is impermissible to undermine our moral foundations, moral values, to try to destroy the country."
Defense lawyers said Putin's remarks amounted to pressure on the appeals court. "I want a ruling on President Putin on the inadmissibility of his meddling in a court decision," defense lawyer Mark Feigin said.
The church has said the appeals court should show leniency if the three women repent. But the defendants said Wednesday that they could not repent because they harbored no religious hatred and had committed no crime. They demanded that their conviction be overturned.
"The idea of the protest was political, not religious," Samutsevich said. "In this and in previous protests we acted against the current government of the president, and against the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution of the Russian government, against the political comments of the Russian patriarch. Exactly because of this I don't consider that I committed a crime."
Patriarch Kirill has expressed strong support for Putin, praising his leadership as "God's miracle." He described the punk performance as part of an assault by "enemy forces" on the church.
The judge repeatedly interrupted the defendants when their statements turned to politics, but they persisted in speaking their minds.
"We will not be silent. And even if we are in Mordovia or Siberia (where prisoners in Russia are often sent to serve out their terms) we won't be silent," Alekhina said.
A lawyer representing cathedral staff, Alexei Taratukhin, said the verdict should be upheld because the women's actions "had nothing to do with politics, democracy or freedom."
Tolokonnikova appealed to Russians for understanding.
"I don't consider myself guilty. But again I ask all those who are listening to me for the last time: I don't want people to be angry at me: Yes, I'm going to prison, but I don't want anyone to think that there is any hatred in me."
Defense lawyers asked the court to take into consideration that Tolokonnikova and Alekhin both have a young child.
The Moscow City Court began Wednesday's hearing by dismissing two defense motions, including one to call more witnesses to the performance inside Christ the Savior Cathedral.
The appeal was postponed from Oct. 1 after Samutsevich fired her lawyers. Prosecutors criticized the move as a delaying tactic.
Mansur Mirovalev and Lynn Berry contributed to this report.