MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin's unexpected call for leniency in the Pussy Riot trial failed Friday to convince the wary defence that the three members of the all-girl punk band will be set free soon.
Growing global concern about Russia's latest politically-tinged trial -- this one pitting three women in their 20s against the Russian Orthodox Church -- saw Putin break silence about the controversy for the first time on a visit to London this week.
"I do not think that they should be judged too severely," he said in reference to a February "punk prayer" performance that the balaclava-clad band members staged inside Moscow's biggest cathedral against his rule.
The Russian strongman -- believed to have the final say in most decisions and one who is rarely contradicted by the courts -- added that he expected the band members to "draw their own conclusions" and learn from their mistakes.
"I hope that the court will make the right, well-founded ruling," he added.
The comments seemed to have left the beaten down defence team in a state of disbelief at what briefly looked like a turn of luck which ran counter to a week of hearings during which the prosecution had its way with the Moscow court.
"I treat Putin's statement as a signal -- as a certain turning point," an optimistic co-defence lawyer Mark Feygin told AFP before the start of Friday's hearings.
"It could be the system's signal about how to behave in the trial since international pressure has mounted greatly," he said in a telephone interview.
The punk band's one-minute stunt inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral -- itself a symbol of the Church's resurgence under Putin's 12-year rule -- has turned into a global cause celebre symbolising Russia's lack of freedoms.
Group leader Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and band mates Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich have already been in pre-trial detention for five months and could face seven years if convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
Their case has drawn the interest of Western governments and international pop stars who don Pussy Riot shirts during performances and tweet about them to their hundreds of thousands of fans.
But the spirits of Feygin and other defence attorneys seemed to be sagging again badly by Friday evening after the presiding judge had barred 14 of the 17 defence witnesses from testifying in court.
"In the end, we are only going to question the defendents' two teachers and one of their classmates," the Interfax news agency quoted judge Marina Syrova as telling the courtroom.
"Nothing has changed," Feygin tweeted by Friday evening.
"Putin lied to everyone again," co-defence attorney Nikolai Polozov added on his own Twitter account.
The prosecution had earlier sought to keep all the defence witnesses from attending the hearings -- a move they justified by claiming their irrelevance to the case.
"The OMON (riot police) is pulling my witnesses out of the courtroom," Feygin tweeted shortly after the judge's decision.
The list of the original defence witnesses included the prominent protest leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and the award-winning novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya.
Pussy Riot supporters had earlier expressed fears that Putin had made his London comments primarily to calm Western anger rather than push for the women's release.
The Russian strongman has rarely bowed in the face of Western pressure on domestic issues and spent the first months of his third term raising penalties on protesters and branding groups with Western funding as "foreign agents."
Pussy Riot's attorneys meanwhile have openly admitted that their best -- and possibly only -- form of defence rested on drawing global condemnation to what they see as disproportionate punishment for a prank stunt.
Hollywood star Danny De Vito joined the ranks of the band's growing global celebrity fan club on Friday by tweeting about them to his 2.3 million followers.
"Mr. Putin... Pussy Riot... set 'em free," the actor wrote.
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