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Pussy Riot Awaits Verdict For Staging Anti-Kremlin Protest In Church (VIDEO)

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In this Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 file photo feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, file)
In this Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 file photo feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, file)


MOSCOW, Aug 17 (Reuters) - A Russian judge delivers a verdict on Friday against three members of a feminist punk band for staging an anti-Kremlin protest in a church, in a case their supporters say has put President Vladimir Putin's tolerance of dissent on trial.

Prosecutors want a three-year jail sentence for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for the members of the band Pussy Riot, who stormed the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February wearing bright ski masks, tights and short skirts to hold a "punk prayer" for Russia to get rid of Putin.

Putin's opponents portray the trial as part of a wider crackdown by the former KGB spy to crush their protest movement. Pop stars led by Madonna - who performed in Moscow with "PUSSY RIOT" painted on her back - have campaigned for the women's release. Washington says the case is politically motivated.

"Our imprisonment is a clear and distinct sign that the whole country's freedom is being taken away," Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, said in a letter written in jail and posted on the Internet by defence lawyer Mark Feigin.

In a sign of the tension over the trial in a small Moscow courtroom, Judge Marina Syrova was assigned bodyguards on Thursday following what authorities said were threats.

The trial has divided Russia's Orthodox Christians, with many backing the authorities' demands for severe punishment, but others saying the women should be granted clemency.

Putin, who returned to the presidency this year, has said the women's punishment should not be too harsh.

Police blocked off the street outside the brick courthouse with metal barriers and at least seven police buses stood by.

Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, say their protest on Feb. 21 was intended to highlight the close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and state, and not to offend believers.

Their feminist punk collective has about 10 members who appear in public in ski masks for anonymous impromptu performances they describe as a form of protest art.

The three members have been held in jail since shortly after the appearance in the cathedral, awaiting the trial, which saw a parade of state witnesses say they were traumatised by the church performance, which prosecutors called an abuse of God.

Their lawyers say the outcome will be dictated by the Kremlin. Putin's supporters deny this and portray the women as blasphemers and self-publicists who should be punished for committing a premeditated outrage against the Church.

"It was a conscious deed. They understood quite clearly where they were going and why," said Vladimir Burmatov, who represents Putin's United Russia party in parliament.

Judge Syrova will start reading the verdict at 3 p.m. (1100 GMT) and could hand down a sentence by evening.




RADICAL PROTEST

Pussy Riot was formed last year in anger at Putin's decision to return to the presidency in an election after four years as premier. The band's public performances were popular on the Internet, but it is the trial that has brought them global fame.

The charges against them raised concern abroad about freedom of speech in Russia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Protests in support of the group were planned on Friday in cities from Sydney to Paris, and New York to London. A long list of international celebrities have backed their cause.

The opposition says Putin saw the trial initially as a chance to strengthen his relationship with the influential Russian Orthodox Church - about 70 percent of Russians say they follow the faith - but his plans backfired.

Although believers were united in outrage that the band thrashed out a "punk prayer" deriding Putin in a place they consider sacrosanct, many were upset by the Church hierarchy's lack of forgiveness and calls for "divine retribution".

Many Russians, including some of the Orthodox faithful, are concerned about ties between church and state under Patriarch Kirill, who has praised Putin's rule as a "miracle of God".

Aware that a long sentence could reinforce the picture Pussy Riot have painted of him as intolerant and repressive, Putin told reporters this month that although the women had done "nothing good", they should not be judged too harshly.

But the damage to Putin's image abroad has already been done, and divisions between his supporters and opponents have widened, risking polarising society even more than when protests took off against his 12-year-rule during the winter.

Many Russians say the Pussy Riot three have served enough time in jail awaiting their sentence, and should be released immediately. However, Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin political analyst, said that would upset nationalists.

"If Pussy Riot are set free without punishment and without showing sincere repentance in public, it is highly likely that after their release and the radicalisation of Russian nationalist groups, the people who took part in the 'punk prayer' will be lynched," he wrote in the Vedomosti newspaper.

Even if the judge shows leniency, protest leaders say Putin will not relax pressure on opponents in his new six-year term.

In moves seen by the opposition as a crackdown, parliament has rushed through laws increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls on the Internet - which is used to arrange protests - and imposing stricter rules on defamation.

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