A Russian judge delivers a verdict on Friday against three members of the Pussy Riot punk band whose trial for staging an anti-Kremlin protest in a church has provoked an international outcry against President Vladimir Putin.
The state prosecutor has demanded a three-year jail sentence over the women’s storming of the altar under the golden domes of Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in bright balaclavas, tights and short skirts, an act she called an abuse of God.
Putin’s opponents portray the trial as part of a wider crackdown by the former KGB spy to crush their protest movement and pop stars led by Madonna have campaigned for the women’s release in a case Washington said is politically motivated.
In a sign of the tension over the trial in a small Moscow courtroom, which has divided Russian Orthodox Christians, Judge Marina Syrova was assigned bodyguards on Thursday following what authorities said were threats against her.
"I am not afraid of your poorly concealed fraud of a verdict in this so-called court because it can deprive me of my freedom," Maria Alyokhina, 24, one of the defendants, said during the trial.
"No one will take my inner freedom away."
Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, said their protest on February 21 was intended to highlight the close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and state, and not to offend believers.
Their lawyers said they have not received a fair trial and the verdict 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.
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.
A feminist punk collective of about 10 women, its trademark is radical political protests designed to shock.
The opposition said 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, they were split into two camps.
Some demanded a tough sentence, but others were angered by the church hierarchy’s lack of forgiveness and calls for "divine retribution", as well as Patriarch Kirill’s dabbling in politics when he 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 his image abroad has already been done, and the 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.
Even if the judge shows leniency, protest leader Alexei Navalny said Putin will not now relax pressure on his opponents in his new six-year term as president, which could extend his rule as president or prime minister to 18 years.
"I know for a fact that they can now jail anyone," said Navalny, who has been charged with stealing from a state timber firm and could face up to 10 years in jail.
Another protest organiser, Gennady Gudkov, is being investigated over his business activities and several protesters face investigation over their role in a demonstration that turned violent on May 6, the eve of Putin’s Kremlin return.
Parliament has also rushed through laws increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls on the Internet — which is used to arrange protests — and imposing stricter rules on defamation.