Verdict, protests loom for Russia's jailed punks

Associated Press
A masked demonstrator stands in front of a placard reading: 'Justice'  in support of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot during a protest outside Spain's Foreign Office in Madrid Thursday Aug. 16, 2012. Three members of Pussy Riot were jailed in March and charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred after their punk performance against President Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral. They are awaiting the verdict on Friday, Aug. 17, 2012 (AP Photo/Paul White)
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MOSCOW (AP) — Security is tight around a Moscow courthouse where three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot are to hear the verdict Friday in a trial that could send them to prison for seven years.

The case has attracted international attention as an emblem of Russia's intolerance of dissent. The three women have been jailed since March after the band put on a brief guerrilla performance in Moscow's main cathedral, a so-called punk prayer entreating the Virgin Mary to protect Russia from Vladimir Putin, who at the time was on the verge of winning a new term as Russian president.

The women, two of whom have young children, are charged with hooliganism connected to religious hatred. But the case is widely seen as a warning that authorities will tolerate opposition only under tightly controlled conditions.

It also underlines the vast influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although church and state are formally separate, the church identifies itself as the heart of Russian national identity and critics say its strength effectively makes it a quasi-state entity.

Protests timed to just before the verdict or soon afterward are planned in more than three dozen cities worldwide.

Prosecutors have asked for three-year sentences, down from the possible seven-year maximum and Putin himself has said he hopes the sentencing is not "too severe."

Celebrities including Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bjork have called for them to be freed, and protests are planned around the world Friday.

The women "hope for an acquittal but they are ready to continue to fight," defense lawyer Nikolai Polozov said outside the court building, where there was a heavy police presence

Acquittal appeared unlikely. But even if the women are sentenced only to time already served, the case has already strongly clouded Russia's esteem overseas and stoked the resentment of opposition partisans who have turned out in a series of massive rallies since last winter.

The case comes in the wake of several recently passed laws cracking down on opposition, including one that raised the fine for taking part in an unauthorized demonstrations by 150 times to 300,000 rubles (about $9,000).

Another measure requires non-government organizations that both engage in vaguely defined political activity and receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents."

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Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.

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