By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - 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 signaled 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.
KREMLIN INFLUENCE OVER COURTS
Putin has signaled he is aware of the danger of appearing intolerant. He told reporters in London that although they did "nothing good", they should not be judged too harshly.
He also insisted that it was for the court to decide the verdict, but few people in Russia believe that.
"The decision, the ruling, is certainly not made in the courtroom. Like in any prominent political case in Russia, such rulings are made elsewhere," said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre think-tank.
That is bad news for foreign investors who regard an independent judiciary and rule of law as vital for a safe and predictable investment environment in Russia.
A sentence that is widely considered too harsh would open Putin to new criticism in Russia and abroad, might help drive more disillusioned young Russians into the arms of the opposition and could radicalize his opponents.
A lenient sentence could win Putin plaudits but would risk alienating leaders of the influential Russian Orthodox Church, whose flock includes 70 percent of the population, though far fewer regularly attend services. It would also do little to convince foreign governments he has changed tack.
"A tough sentence on Friday would make divisions in society worse and feed radicalism. A more lenient sentence would seem a sensible compromise, but it would still not remove the damage that has already been done to Russian society and the Kremlin," said former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky.
A liberal Russian magazine, the New Times, said the negative publicity for Putin had been worse even than during the five-day war with Georgia in 2008, the arrest of wealthy businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 and the forced break-up of his oil company, Yukos, after he fell out with the president.
"Neither the war in Georgia ... nor the expropriation of Yukos and he second sentence blatantly ordered up against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, nor even Putin's return to the Kremlin has done as much damage to his image in the civilized world as this trial," it said.
NO IMPACT ON POLICY
Despite any damage to his image and foreign criticism, Putin is unlikely to change course. He won almost two-thirds of votes in the March 4 presidential election and can still count on a lot of support in Russia's provinces.
Kremlin sources say anti-Western rhetoric swelled his support on March 4, and fine words about democracy matter much less to Russian voters than the nation's leader showing a firm hand, sounding tough and standing up to foreign powers.
"Either you show weakness and you show that you are not confident, and then you are facing a risk of weakening even further - or you continue to crack down," Lipman said. "There is no way to stop on the path of cracking down and of repression."
The Kremlin has denied launching a crackdown or persecuting opponents and businessmen who criticize Putin.
His first 100 days in office included resisting Western efforts to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the passage of laws to tighten control of the Internet, push up fines for protesters and increase checks on foreign-funded lobby groups.
The homes of some protest organizers have been searched, and state investigators have pressed theft charges against one opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and are investigating another, Gennady Gudkov, over his business activities.
While many Russians have little sympathy with the mainly middle-class protesters who have taken to the streets against Putin in big cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, anger over the treatment of Pussy Riot could reinvigorate a protest movement that had stuttered in recent months after attracting large crowds in the winter.
(Additional reporting by Catherine Koppel)
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