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Three members of a feminist punk band denounced a lack of freedom in Russia as a judge prepared to deliver a verdict on Friday over their anti-Kremlin protest in a church, a case that 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 Pussy Riot group, who stormed the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February wearing bright ski masks, tights and short skirts and sang a "punk prayer" for Russia to be 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, and 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 defense 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.
Police blocked off the street outside the brick courthouse with metal barriers, and police buses stood by. Four people were detained when they unfurled a banner reading: "Free Pussy Riot".
The trial has divided Russia's mainly Orthodox Christian society, with many backing the authorities' demands for severe punishment over a protest the prosecution has described as sacrilege, but others asking for clemency for the women.
Putin, who returned to the presidency for a third term in May, has said the women did "nothing good" but should not be judged too harshly.
"The girls went too far, but they should be fined and released," said Alexei, a 30-year-old engineer on a Moscow street near the court who declined to give his last name.
But Valentina Ivanova, 60, a retired doctor, could not hide her outrage, saying: "What they did showed disrespect towards everything, and towards believers first of all. Let them get three years in jail; they need to wise up."
An opinion poll released by the independent Levada research group on Friday showed only 6 percent had sympathy with the women, 51 percent said they found nothing good about them or felt irritation or hostility, and the rest were unable to say or were indifferent.
Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, are educated, middle-class Russians who say their protest was intended to highlight close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin, 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 protest. During the trial, a parade of state witnesses said they were traumatized by the church performance, which prosecutors called an abuse of God.
Defense lawyers say the Kremlin will dictate the outcome. Ex-oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was jailed for fraud and tax evasion after falling out with Putin, described the case as "political persecution" in comments posted on the Internet.
But Putin's supporters 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 was due to start reading the verdict at 3 p.m. (1100 GMT) and could hand down a sentence by evening.
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. The band's public performances were popular on the Internet, but it is the trial that has brought them global fame.
The charges against them raised concern abroad about freedom of speech in Russia two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Protests in support of the group were planned on Friday in cities from Sydney to Paris, and New York to London, and a long list of international celebrities have backed their cause.
With "Free Riot" scrawled across her bare chest, a member of the feminist group Femen felled a wooden cross with a power saw on Friday in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, saying she did so to support the trio.
Although believers were united in outrage at the Pussy Riot protest on February 21, many were upset by Church leaders' lack of forgiveness and calls for "divine retribution".
Many Russians, including some of the Orthodox faithful, are concerned about ties between church and state under Patriarch Kirill, who has praised Putin's rule as a "miracle of God".
Divisions between Putin's supporters and opponents have also widened, risking polarizing society even more than when protests took off against his 12-year-rule during the winter.
Even if the judge shows leniency, protest leaders say Putin will not relax pressure on opponents in his new six-year term.
In moves seen by the opposition as a crackdown, parliament has rushed through laws increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls on the Internet, which is used to arrange protests, and imposing stricter rules on defamation.
(Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, Alissa de Carbonnel, Maria Tsvetkova and Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Olzhas Auyezov in Kiev, Editing by Peter Graff and Will Waterman)