Pussy Riot hooliganism verdict due in Russia

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A verdict in the trial of three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot is due shortly.

The three women are charged with hooliganism after performing a protest song in Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral in February.

They say their "punk prayer" was a political act in protest against the Russian Orthodox Church leader's support of President Vladimir Putin.

Prosecutors have asked for them to be given three years in prison.

Judge Marina Syrova will begin reading the ruling at 15:00 local time (11:00 GMT), in what is expected to be a lengthy process.

Supporters of the women are planning to stage protests in dozens of cities around the world.

On Friday, several statues around Moscow were briefly covered with coloured balaclavas, the band's trademark look, in a show of support.

Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, along with other members of their band, staged a flashmob-style performance of their song close to the altar in the cathedral on 21 February.

Their obscenity-laced performance, which implored the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out", enraged the Orthodox Church - its leader Patriarch Kirill said it amounted to blasphemy.

Patriarch Kirill is closely identified with the Kremlin, having backed Mr Putin's re-election as president this year.

Speaking earlier this month, Mr Putin said the women should "not be judged too severely".

High-profile support

On the eve of the verdict, Ms Tolokonnikova said she was "not bitter about being in jail". But, speaking through her lawyer on Twitter, she said: "Politically, I am furious."

"Our imprisonment serves as a clear and unambiguous sign that freedom is being taken away from the entire country."

Supporters of Pussy Riot place balaclavas on a statue in a Moscow underground station (17 Aug 2012)

Her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, told the BBC he believed the court would not deliver an impartial verdict.

"No-one in Russia, no-one outside the world has any doubt that it's Putin personally who will be choosing the sentence for the three members of Pussy Riot," he said.

"Everyone understands that in Russia, it's Putin who gets the decision in the court cases, not the judge, not anyone else."

But Mr Verzilov said he did not know which direction Mr Putin would take, and what "signal" he would like to give.

"Either he will signal that he has the ability to listen to public outcry both in Russia and the rest of the world, or that he sees Russia moving not even towards China but towards North Korea."

Russian public opinion on the case is divided, with many people saying the women, two of whom have young children, have been treated too harshly and that the case is part of attempts to clamp down on opposition after mass anti-Putin protests earlier this year.

"The girls went too far, but they should be fined and released," a man who gave his name as Alexei told Reuters news agency.

But 60-year-old retired doctor Valentina Ivanova said they had shown "disrespect towards everything, and towards believers first of all".

"Let them get three years in jail; they need to wise up," she said.

'Gangster state'

The women have attracted high-profile support from other artists including Sir Paul McCartney, Bjork and Madonna, who called for their release while she was on tour in Russia earlier this month. Amnesty International considers them prisoners of conscience.

In a statement addressed to "Nadya, Katya and Masha", Sir Paul, 70, said: "I would like you to know that I very much hope the Russian authorities would support the principle of free speech for all their citizens and not feel that they have to punish you for your protest."

Fellow musician Peter Gabriel said supporting the band would send a message to Russia, which he described as a "gangster state" in an article for The Times newspaper.

Rallies and vigils are being held in more than a dozen cities across Europe on Friday. In London, the Royal Court theatre will stage verbatim readings of Pussy Riot's testimony.

The theatre's artistic director, Dominic Cooke, said the case was crucial for "those who believe that the right of artists to question the actions of the state is central to an egalitarian society".

On Thursday, former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev told the BBC's Russian Service the case should never have gone to trial, calling it "a completely pointless undertaking".

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