Pussy Riot Punks Await Judgement Day in Russia

by
staff
A Moscow court will pass judgement Friday on three women from a tiny punk band who captured global attention by defying the Russian authorities and ridiculing President Vladimir Putin in a church.

Rallies outside Russian consulates in Pussy Riot's defence will stretch from Paris to Sydney and New York

A Moscow court will pass judgement Friday on three women from a tiny punk band who captured global attention by defying the Russian authorities and ridiculing President Vladimir Putin in a church.

Rallies outside Russian consulates in Pussy Riot's defence will stretch from Paris to Sydney and New York while British singer Paul McCartney has joined a host of stars in publicly backing the new cause celebre.

The ex-Beatle wrote before the verdict that "many people in the civilised world are allowed to voice their opinions" and urged the Russian authorities to set the three women -- two of them mothers and all no older than 30 -- free.

State prosecutors are demanding three years in a corrective labour facility for the band mates on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

The "Punk Prayer" song they performed wearing knit balaclava and short neon dresses close to the altar of Moscow's biggest cathedral on February 21 called in its chorus for the Virgin Mary to "drive out Putin".

The judge will convene the session at 1100 GMT under tight security and is likely to rule quickly on their guilt before taking hours to read through the case material and eventually reaching the sentencing phase.

The verdict is being delivered the same week Putin marked the first 100 days of a third Kremlin term he has used to slap new fines and restrictions on protests and political NGOs with foreign sources of income.

The former KGB agent's return to a Kremlin post he used to centralise power in 2000-2008 has been punctuated by growing tensions with Western governments fearful about the future of free expression in Russia.

The US State Department has already angered Moscow by expressing formal concern about the "politically motivated prosecution of the Russian opposition."

The unusual case has also highlighted the political sway enjoyed by the Russian Orthodox Church in the formally secular country and the danger it faces of estranging the younger generation it must foster for future growth.

Polls show opinion having shifted firmly in the singers' favour after the public initially backed a full seven-year sentence applicable to the crime.

The women have already spent five months in pre-trial detention after their detention was repeatedly extended by a judge who agreed that their release posed a public safety threat.

"I am not bitter about being in jail," band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in a letter posted on Twitter by her lawyer on the eve of the verdict.

"But politically, I am furious," she added. "Our imprisonment serves as a clear and unambiguous sign that freedom is being taken away from the entire country."

Even some Church members now concede that it may be wise for the clergy to be less hostile toward the first concerted post-Soviet protest movement that rose against Putin this winter on news of his impending Kremlin return.

"The voice of extremism is now being viewed as the voice of the Church itself," the reformist Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev wrote in his blog.

Winter protest leaders such as the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and the popular novelist Boris Akunin have vowed to join rallies outside the courthouse demanding the band members' immediate release.