Vladimir Putin has called for a Russian court to show leniency toward feminist punk band Pussy Riot, calling into question the independence of Russia's notoriously politicised court system.
Putin criticised the women's February act in Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral, where they performed an anti-Putin "punk prayer" designed to highlight the Orthodox Church's support for the powerful presidency.
"There is nothing good in this," Putin told journalists at the end of a one day trip to London. "I wouldn't really like to comment, but I think if the girls were, let's say, in Israel, and insulted something in Israel … it wouldn't be so easy for them to leave." If they "desecrated some Muslim holy site, we wouldn't even have had time to detain them", he added.
"Nonetheless, I don't think they should be judged too severely for this," Putin said. "But the final decision rests with the courts – I hope the court will deliver a correct, well-founded ruling."
Three members of Pussy Riot – Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich – face up to seven years in prison if found guilty on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. They have argued that they were carrying out a political protest against the church's support of Putin ahead of contentious elections that saw Putin return to the presidency for the third time amid unprecedented protests.
"On the one hand, Putin's statement is without doubt a manoeuvre for the international community, because he is clearly worried and traumatised by the international reaction, as it is out of his control," said Mark Feygin, a lawyer for Pussy Riot. "On the other hand, he is frantically trying to find an exit, so as not to take responsibility.»
Defence lawyers have likened the case against Pussy Riot, which continued to be heard on Friday, to a show trial. "Every day, the level of absurdity grows and grows," said Nikolai Polozov, another lawyer for Pussy Riot.
The prosecution has concluded questioning their witnesses, mainly those who were inside the cathedral during the performance. The judge has yet to rule on whether the defence will be allowed to call witnesses. Among those the defence hopes to call is opposition activist Alexei Navalny, currently facing his own charges of fraud as Russia's crackdown on dissent grows.
Lawyers initially said they expected a verdict early next week, but said Putin's public statements on the trial also called that into question.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk