Russia's Pussy Riot face verdict

A Russian judge has put President Vladimir Putin's tolerance of dissent on trial with the Pussy Riot Verdict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: AFP

MOSCOW - A Russian judge delivers a verdict on Friday against three members of a feminist punk band for staging an anti-Kremlin protest in a church, in a case their supporters say has put President Vladimir Putin's tolerance of dissent on trial.

Prosecutors want a three-year jail sentence for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for the members of the band Pussy Riot, who stormed the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February wearing bright ski masks, tights and short skirts to hold a "punk prayer" for Russia to get rid of Putin.

Putin's opponents portray the trial as part of a wider crackdown by the former KGB spy to crush their protest movement. Pop stars led by Madonna - who performed in Moscow with "PUSSY RIOT" painted on her back - have campaigned for the women's release. Washington says the case is politically motivated.

"Our imprisonment is a clear and distinct sign that the whole country's freedom is being taken away," Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, said in a letter written in jail and posted on the Internet by defence lawyer Mark Feigin.

In a sign of the tension over the trial in a small Moscow courtroom, Judge Marina Syrova was assigned bodyguards on Thursday following what authorities said were threats.

The trial has divided Russia's Orthodox Christians, with many backing the authorities' demands for severe punishment, but others saying the women should be granted clemency.

Putin, who returned to the presidency this year, has said the women's punishment should not be too harsh.

Police blocked off the street outside the brick courthouse with metal barriers and at least seven police buses stood by.

Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, say 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 feminist punk collective has about 10 members who appear in public in ski masks for anonymous impromptu performances they describe as a form of protest art.

The three members have been held in jail since shortly after the appearance in the cathedral, awaiting the trial, which saw a parade of state witnesses say they were traumatized by the church performance, which prosecutors called an abuse of God.

Their lawyers say the outcome 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.

Judge Syrova will start reading the verdict at 3 p.m. and could hand down a sentence by evening.