MOSCOW — Russia on Thursday put the Pussy Riot trial judge under protection ahead of the delivery of her verdict as ex-Beatle Paul McCartney joined the chorus of support for the jailed punk rockers.
A spokeswoman for the Khamovnichesky District Court said Thursday the judge Marina Syrova had been placed under state protection after receiving threats from the band's supporters.
"The threats have come from supporters of the band's members," court spokeswoman told AFP.
Syrova is presiding over the highly-publicised trial of the young female punk rockers, who face three years in prison for staging a protest stunt against President Vladimir Putin inside a landmark Moscow church.
Syrova will begin reading her verdict on Friday at 1100 GMT.
Ex-Beatle McCartney joined the ranks of Pussy Riot supporters that include US pop legend Madonna and Icelandic singer Bjork to express solidarity with the punk rockers.
In a letter posted on the front page of his website, McCartney addressed the women by their nicknames Nadya, Katya and Masha, and said he hoped the Russian authorities would not punish the women.
"I very much hope the Russian authorities would support the principle of free speech for all their citizens and not feel that they have to punish you for your protest," McCartney said.
Scores of supporters including Russian opposition activists promised to show up outside the Moscow courtroom.
Many observers will see the widely-anticipated verdict as a bellwether of Russia's direction during Putin's third term as president.
"Our imprisonment serves as a clear and unambiguous sign that freedom is being taken away from the entire country," Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the three singers, wrote in a message released to the public Thursday afternoon.
Members of the once unheralded band have been in pre-trial detention for five months awaiting the verdict.
The prosecution has asked the court to sentence the women, two of whom have young children, to three years in a corrective labour facility for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
Very little is known about the judge except that she tends to side with the prosecution, observers said.
"Among the 178 verdicts delivered by Marina Syrova there is only one acquittal," wrote online publication OpenSpace.ru which analysed her published rulings over the past three years.
Syrova, until recently an obscure judge, reports to another judge, Viktor Danilkin, who in 2010 found critical tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev guilty of money laundering and embezzlement.
Syrova's abrasive manner and disregard for the arguments of the defence won her few admirers among Pussy Riot supporters.
One of the defence lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, said in a caustic message he hoped the judge would be guarded by dogs like the Pussy Riot members, who have been accompanied by a guard dog in court.
"Let them guard her. She does not decide anything anyway," another defence lawyer Mark Feigin wrote on Twitter.
Observers say courts in Russia toe the Kremlin line, and few doubt the true place of origin of the future verdict.
Novelist and Putin critic Boris Akunin was one of the celebrities who said he would come to the courthouse to express solidarity with the singers.
Top opposition leader Alexei Navalny and radical left-wing activist Sergei Udaltsov also said they would attend.
"Everyone get behind Pussy Riot tomorrow," Udaltsov wrote on Twitter.
Activists from ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party which usually sides with the Kremlin said it would stage a counter-rally near the court to support the Russian Orthodox Church.
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