Published August 17. 2012 8:00AM Updated August 17. 2012 10:59AM
MOSCOW — A judge found three members of the provocative punk band Pussy Riot guilty of hooliganism on Friday, in a case that has drawn widespread international condemnation as an emblem of Russia's intolerance of dissent.
The judge said the three band members "committed hooliganism driven by religious hatred" and offended religious believers. The three were arrested in March after a guerrilla performance in Moscow's main cathedral calling for the Virgin Mary to protect Russia against Vladimir Putin, who was elected to a new term as Russia's president two weeks later.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23; Maria Alekhina, 24; and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, face a maximum seven years in prison, although the prosecutors asked for a three-year sentence. The judge was still reading a synopsis of the case, but the sentence could be handed down at any time.
Putin himself has said he hopes the sentencing is not "too severe."
Even if the women are sentenced only to time already served, the case has already strongly clouded Russia's esteem overseas and stoked the resentment of opposition partisans who have turned out in a series of massive rallies since last winter.
It also underlines the vast influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although church and state are formally separate, the church identifies itself as the heart of Russian national identity and critics say its strength effectively makes it a quasi-state entity. Some Orthodox groups and many believers are urging strong punishment for an action they consider sacrilegious.
Celebrities including Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bjork have called for the band members to be freed, and protests timed to just before the verdict or soon afterward were planned in more than three dozen cities worldwide. In the Russian capital activists put the band's trademark ski masks, or balaclavas, on several statues across town.
By the time the court started reading the verdict, hundreds of Pussy Riot supporters filled a narrow street where the court is located, chanting "Russia without Putin!" amid heavy police presence. Police rounded up some of the protesters, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is a leading opposition activist, and leftist opposition group leader Sergei Udaltsov.
Before Friday's proceedings began, defense lawyer Nikolai Polozov said the women "hope for an acquittal but they are ready to continue to fight."
The case comes in the wake of several recently passed laws cracking down on opposition, including one that raised the fine for taking part in an unauthorized demonstrations by 150 times to about $9,000.
Another measure requires non-government organizations that both engage in vaguely defined political activity and receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents."
Lynn Berry, Jim Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.