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Putin asks court not to judge Pussy Riot 'so harshly'

Vladimir Putin has requested leniency for Pussy Riot members facing hooliganism charges, raising hopes that the women could escape lengthy sentences. Rights groups and performers have called for their release.

The Russian president said he doesn't think the three Pussy Riot members should be "judged so harshly" for their punk prayer at an Orthodox cathedral in which they called on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out!" He added, however, that it is up to the court to decide the case.

"I hope the court will come out with the right decision, a well-founded one," he said.

Putin's comments, reported by Russian news agencies during his visit to London to attend the Olympics, suggest that the three members of the punk band could escape the maximum seven-year jail term following international criticism of the Kremlin over the case.

In a letter to The Times newspaper of London coinciding with Putin's visit, Pete Townshend, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, and others said that the band members were involved in legitimate protest and called for their release. Putin said he did not discuss the Pussy Riot case during his talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Opinion shifts toward Pussy Riot

Russian opposition leaders have called the trial part of a crackdown on dissent since Putin began a third term as president on May 7. Opinion polls suggest that many Russians believe that the women, who have already been held in jail for about five months, should not face more time behind bars.

Russian President Vladimir Putin waves as he meets Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street in London

Putin made the comments on a visit to London to take in the Olympics and meet with David Cameron

The members of Pussy Riot are being tried on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. The three have said they were protesting against close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government. They were particularly angered by the church's support for Putin in his presidential election campaign this year.

A lawyer for the band members said Putin's statements are a signal to critics - and a request that judicial authorities show the women leniency. Prosecutors are to recommend a sentence at the end of the trial.

"In my opinion this is a gesture towards the West, towards the consumers of Russian energy resources, and (Putin's) business partners," defense lawyer Nikolai Polozov said. "Given the significance of such signals, we can expect some softening of the prosecution's position," he added.

mkg/jm (AP, AFP, Reuters)