OPINION: So much for glasnost. The Moscow trial of three members of Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot on charges of hooliganism confirms what has long been apparent in Russia. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia is sliding back to the bad old days of the tsars and Communist despots.
The trial bears many of the hallmarks of the infamous show trials instigated by Josef Stalin in the 193os to purge the Soviet Union of his rivals and imagined rivals.
Mercifully the charged members of the all-female group - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich - do not, if convicted, face the death penalty as Stalin's victims did, but they do face up to seven years imprisonment for doing nothing more than raucously protesting the Russian Orthodox Church's tacit endorsement of Mr Putin's candidacy in a Moscow cathedral in February.
Putin's message to his critics is as chilling as Stalin's was: Defy me and the apparatus of the state will be brought to bear against you.
Were the stakes not so high, the trial could be a C grade movie with a supporting cast of mendacious churchmen, government toadies and police snitches.
The trio's accusers include a spokesman for the church who has accused them of ''a sin against God'', a cathedral guard who claims the women's performance was so shocking he effectively suffered a nervous breakdown and has been unable to work for two months, and a candle seller, who says the women kicked their legs so high ''you could see everything from the waist down''.
Offensive? Probably. Inappropriate? Yes. Tasteless? Definitely. But, deserving of a seven-year prison sentence? Definitely not.
''Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?'' opined The Times in a much-quoted editorial in 1967 when Rolling Stone Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for having in his possession four Italian ''pep pills'' available in chemist shops. The sentiment holds even truer here.
The women, who have been held in detention since March, do not deserve to be sent to jail for a political protest in which no-one was physically hurt and nothing was broken.
However, Mr Putin is not simply deploying the apparatus of the state to vent his spleen at an embarrassing protest. He is sending a warning to all who might be tempted to question the fairness of the elections that reinstalled him as president for a third term this year after a four-year interregnum, the endemic corruption that, according to American diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks, has transformed Russia into a ''virtual mafia state'' or his links with the oligarchs who have seized control of the former Soviet state's energy resources.
New Zealand should join other nations in expressing its dismay at a prosecution that threatens Russia's nascent democracy.
Dissent and protest are signs of vitality in a democracy. Their toleration is a mark of stability. Their suppression is cause for alarm.
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