* Pussy Riot trial shows Putin's intolerance of dissent
* Verdict due on Friday, sentence could follow quickly
* The three women face up to three years in jail
* Trial has exposed Putin to international criticism
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, Aug 16 Whatever verdict a Russian court
passes on Friday on 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 than before to brook
dissent as he begins a third term.
The trial has caused an international outcry and crushed any
Western and opposition hopes that the former KGB officer might
choose to allow more political freedom and give courts more
independence in the first months of his new presidency.
"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 ski masks, short skirts
and bright tights and belting out a "punk prayer" protesting
against Putin's close ties with the Orthodox Church.
Judge Marina Syrova will 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 protest on Feb. 21 was part of a broad
movement against Putin's decision 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 street protests against Putin during the winter.
The trial has exposed the president to international
criticism for politically motivated prosecutions, including from
the U.S. State Department, human rights groups and pop stars.
American singer Madonna wore a ski-mask at a Moscow concert
to show her support for Pussy Riot and stripped to her bra to
show the band name scrawled across her back. Former Beatle Paul
McCartney added his support on Thursday and campaign groups plan
protests in New York, Paris, London and elsewhere on Friday.
Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Putin's own human rights
council, called the trial a "disgrace" on Thursday and said the
women should not be sentenced to jail.
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 had 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.
An opinion poll conducted this month by the independent
Levada Centre, and released on Thursday, showed only 48 percent
of Russians have a generally favourable impression of Putin,
down from 60 percent in May and lower than at any time in his
2000-2008 presidency. Levada did not explain the drop.
KREMLIN INFLUENCE OVER COURTS
Putin has signalled he is aware of the danger of appearing
intolerant. He told reporters this month that although the women
did "nothing good", they should not be judged too harshly.
He also insisted that it was for the court to decide the
verdict - though few people in Russia believe that is true.
"The decision, the ruling, is certainly not made in the
courtroom," said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow
Centre think-tank. "Like in any prominent political case in
Russia, such rulings are made elsewhere."
That is bad news for foreign investors who regard an
independent judiciary and the reliable rule of law as vital to
foster placing funds in Russia.
A sentence that is widely considered too harsh would open
Putin to new criticism at home and abroad, might help drive more
disillusioned young Russians into the arms of the opposition and
could radicalise 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 liberal Russian magazine, the New Times, said the negative
publicity for Putin had been worse than the war with Georgia in
2008 or the arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003.
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
strong level of support in Russia's provinces.
Kremlin sources say anti-Western rhetoric swelled that
public 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," Carnegie's Lipman
said. "There is no way to stop on the path of cracking down and