A Moscow court has banned as "extremist" a US-made anti-Islamic film that fed deadly protests across the Arab world but whose showing was backed by human rights supporters in Russia.
Moscow's Tverskoi District judge sided with prosecution arguments presented in court that the low-budget "Innocence of Muslims" production "promoted the rise of religious intolerance in Russia".
"The prosecution's motion has been satisfied," a court spokesperson told the AFP news agency by telephone.
But liberal activists and some officials urged the authorities to back free expression and not use the controversy to further a clamp down on rights under Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia's human rights ombudsman testified at the hearing on Monday that he was against the film's prohibition while a group of artists and liberal media personalities urged Putin not to be swayed by the global militant attacks on US targets.
"The darkest forces of global terrorism are trying to scare our civilisation and force us to accept their will," reads the open letter to Putin.
"Ban neither this film nor any other works of art that disturb religious extremists," it urged.
Tverskoi court's ruling on Monday follows a similar decision taken last week by a court in Grozny, the provincial capital of Russia's Muslim-dominated province of Chechnya.
Russia's communications minister had warned that authorities would bar access to YouTube if its owner, Google Inc., failed to abide by a court order to block access to the U.S.-produced film, which mocks Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad.
Google's spokeswoman in Russia, Inessa Roman-Pogorzhelskaya, said last week that the company could restrict access to the video if it received a court order outlawing it.
Blasphemy case adjourned
The ruling came on the same day as an appeal hearing for three members of the Pussy Riot punk band against their two-year blasphemy conviction. The hearing was adjourned until October 10, after one of the women sacked her laywer.
About a hundred people - Pussy Riot supporters in colourful T-shirts as well as mainly elderly Russian Orthodox Christians - filled corridors of the Moscow court and others stood outside.
Pussy Riot supporters released three large balloons - a red, blue and a yellow one, all with captions reading "Pussy Riot!" - into the sky, while one Orthodox campaigner held up a banner declaring: "Shame to lawyers, prison for blasphemers."
One of the bandmate, Yekaterina Samutsevich, sitting in a glass and metal courtroom cage alongside her two colleagues, told the Moscow court she disagreed with her lawyers' handling of the case.
"My position on the criminal case does not match their [the lawyers'] position," Samutsevich told the small courtroom, packed with supporters, family members and reporters. She gave no details.
Western governments have portrayed the three women's two-year sentences as excessive, and opposition groups see it as part of a crackdown on dissent by Putin, but many Russians regard the protest band as irreverent publicity-seekers.
Samutsevich, 30, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after storming into the Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow in February and belting out a "punk prayer" asking the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin.