Activists prepare to support punks

The global campaign to free Pussy Riot is gaining speed: Supporters of the punk provocateur band mobilise this week in at least a dozen cities worldwide to hold simultaneous demonstrations an hour before a Russian court rules on whether its members will be sent to prison.

Friday's rallies will ride a wave of support for the three women who have been in jail for more than five months because of an anti-Putin prank in Moscow's main cathedral. Calls for them to be freed have come from a long list of celebrities such as Madonna and Bjork.

Protests have been held in a number of Western capitals, including Berlin, where last week about 400 people joined Canadian electro-pop performance artist Peaches to support the band.

In one of the most extravagant displays, Reykjavik Mayor Jon Gnarr rode through the streets of the Icelandic capital in a Gay Pride parade this weekend dressed like a band member - wearing a bright pink dress and matching balaclava - while lip-synching to one of Pussy Riot's songs.

Amnesty International has called the women prisoners of conscience and begun collecting signatures by text message for a petition to be sent to the Russian government, while the US State Department has repeatedly expressed its concern.

Although the band members and their lawyers are convinced that the verdict depends entirely on the will of President Vladimir Putin, and prosecutors have asked for a three-year sentence, activists hope their pressure will ease punishment or even free the women.

Mr Putin has said the women should not be judged too harshly, but he risks appearing weak if they walk free.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were little known before their brief impromptu performance in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February. Dancing and high-kicking, they shouted the words of a "punk prayer" asking the Virgin Mary to deliver Russia from Putin, who was set to win a third term in a March presidential election.

They were arrested on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years. Since then, they have been vilified by the state media - while winning over hearts abroad.

On Friday, activists in more than a dozen cities, from Moscow to Toronto, are expected to take to the streets at 2pm. Moscow time (1000 GMT), an hour before the judge is to issue the verdict. The protests are being coordinated by the defence lawyers.