MOSCOW - Three members of an all-girl punk band voiced regret Monday for causing offence when they played an anti-Vladimir Putin song in Russia's top Orthodox cathedral, but said at their trial they were innocent of their charges.
The three young women - who face up to seven years in jail if found guilty of hooliganism charges - said they had wanted to change Russia with their action but could have made an "ethical" mistake by offending worshippers.
Initial hearings in the trial earlier this month saw the court order the three members of punk rock group Pussy Riot to stay in detention until January 2013, a move their supporters condemned as travesty of justice.
With the initial hearings now over, Monday's audience saw first legal arguments in the packed Khamovnichesky court in Moscow at a process that is growing into a landmark event in the struggle between President Putin and the emboldened opposition.
In February, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alekhina climbed into an area reserved for priests in the Church of Christ the Saviour and performed a "punk prayer" against Putin.
The trio were all arrested in March and charged with hooliganism. Several others also took part but were never arrested.
They have been held in detention ever since and their case has been taken up by celebrities including pop star Sting and US rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers and become a new rallying cause for the opposition against Putin.
After the three girls, all dressed casually, confidently declared their names, places of residence and birthdates to the judge, their lawyer Violetta Volkova read out handwritten statements in their names.
"It (the action) was a desperate attempt to change the political system. We had no intention of insulting people. We did not expect our Punk appearance would cause offence," said the statement by Tolokonnikova.
"The fact we do not accept guilt in the charges does not mean we are not ready to admit our mistakes. If someone was insulted then I am prepared to accept that we made an ethical mistake," her statement said.
She said the motivation for their action was a protest against the support in elections for President Putin by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill which was against the principles of Russia's secular constitution.
Samutsevich added: "The main theme of all our texts was not (Orthodox Christianity) but illegitimacy of the elections".
"The calls (by the Patriarch) to vote for Putin and not go to the protest rallies are clear violations of the principles of a non-religious state."
The father of Yekaterina Samutsevich, Stanislav, said he had little hope of mercy for his daughter. "Of course they are going to be put in jail. It is a political trial."
In an interview with the Times newspaper released by the government on Monday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for calm over the case.
"Let us wait for the investigation to be over and the verdict of the court and then we can say if a crime was committed or not," Medvedev said.
He acknowledged: "The case has resonance as it really concerns our understanding of rights and freedoms of individuals."
In a significant irony, the Khamovnichesky court is the same court that in 2010 saw the second trial and conviction of Putin foe and the former head of the Yukos oil giant Mikhail Khodorkovsky on fraud charges.
To cope with the numbers, the trial has now been moved to the same courtroom as the Yukos trial, meaning that the three Pussy Riot members are sitting in the same defendants' box as Khodorkovsky and his co-accused Platon Lebedev.
In a bid to show transparency, the court is for the moment showing the proceedings live in an online broadcast on http: hamovnichesky.msk.sudrf.ru/ but the footage never shows the faces of the judge or prosecutors, only the defence and accused.