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MOSCOW (Reuters) - 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 signaled 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 February 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 favorable 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.
Putin has signaled 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 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 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 of repression."
Additional reporting by Catherine Koppel and Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Alastair Macdonald