Pussy Riot trial sets tone for Putin presidency

Whatever the verdict, President Vladimir Putin is no longer willing to tolerate dissent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: AFP

MOSCOW - Whatever verdict a Russian court delivers on Friday for the women from punk band Pussy Riot who taunted the Kremlin from a church altar, President Vladimir Putin has signalled he is no more willing to brook dissent as he begins a third term.

The trial has caused an international outcry and crushed Western and opposition hopes that former KGB officer Putin might allow more political freedom and give courts more independence in the first few months of his new term.

"Essentially, it is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial here. It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation which is on trial," Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one the three defendants, said in her closing statement last week.

Tolokonnikova, 22, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, face up to three years in jail for bursting into Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in balaclavas, short skirts and bright tights and belting out a "punk prayer" protesting against Putin's close ties with the Orthodox Church.

Judge Marina Syrova is scheduled to start reading the verdict at 3 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Friday and could hand down a sentence by the evening on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

The three women, confined to a glass courtroom cage during the trial, say the February 21 protest was part of a broad movement against Putin's decision last year to return to the Kremlin and extend his effective 12-year rule as president or prime minister for at least six more years. His new term began on May 7.

They deny intending to offend believers and say they are victims of a crackdown on dissent in which the Kremlin has rushed through legislation to tighten its hold on its opponents following big protests against Putin during the winter.

The trial has exposed Putin to international criticism for politically motivated prosecutions, including from the U.S. State Department, human rights groups and pop stars.

U.S. singer Madonna donned a balaclava in a Moscow concert to show her support for Pussy Riot and stripped to her bra to show the band name scrawled across her back. Campaign groups plan new protests in cities such as New York, Paris and London on Friday.

The 59-year-old president's opponents say Putin saw the trial as an opportunity to tarnish the reputation of the whole opposition, but that he misread public opinion.

"The Kremlin thought the entire opposition would be tarred by the same brush when they portrayed Pussy Riot in a bad light. But it hasn't worked," opposition leader Alexei Navalny said.