MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday the three women in the band Pussy Riot who performed a "protest prayer" at Russia's main cathedral should not be judged too harshly, raising defense lawyers' hopes that they could escape lengthy jail terms.
Putin's comments, reported by Russian news agencies during his visit to London, suggested the three members of the punk band could escape the maximum seven-year jail term following international criticism of the Kremlin over the case.
Putin said here was "nothing good" about the band's protest, Interfax reported.
"Nonetheless, I don't think that they should be judged so harshly for this," he said, adding that it was up to the court to decide the case. "I hope the court will come out with the right decision, a well-founded one."
Western governments have criticized the prosecution of the women and human rights groups as well as Red Hot Chili Peppers and other performers have called for their immediate release.
Russian opposition leaders have depicted the trial as part of a crackdown on dissent since Putin began a third term as president on May 7.
A lawyer for the band members said Putin's statements were a signal to Western critics, and to the judicial authorities trying the three women to show leniency.
"In my opinion this is a gesture towards the West, towards the consumers of Russian energy resources and (Putin's) business partners," defense lawyer Nikolai Polozov said at the court.
"Given the significance of such signals, we can expect some softening of the prosecution's position," he said.
He expressed caution in a remark on Twitter, however, saying: "To tell the truth, I don't believe Putin. If the signal gets through and the court reacts, OK, but if not we will fight on."
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, offended many Russian Orthodox Christian believers with the protest on February 21 on the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral.
They are being tried on charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred over the performance in which they called on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out!"
Opinion polls suggest many Russians believe the women, who have been jailed for about five months, should not face more time behind bars.
Prosecutors are to recommend a sentence at the end of the trial.
Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, said Putin's remarks could increase the chances the women would get suspended sentences and avoid further time in jail.
"Putin is Russia's court. He will decide the verdict in the end," Verzilov said. "He is feeling enormous pressure both at home as well as abroad and, obviously, under such circumstances he no longer wants to be a bloody dictator."
The three have denied they were motivated by hate, and said they were protesting against close ties between church and state. They were particularly angered by the support the Russian Orthodox Church's leader, Patriarch Kirill, gave Putin in his presidential election campaign this year.
Kremlin critics say Putin, who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since 2000, wants to use the trial to paint protesters in a negative light.
"Even in the Soviet era, in Stalin's time, the courts were more just," Polozov said earlier on Thursday.
Since his inauguration, the former KGB officer has signed laws raising fines for protesters, tightening control of the Internet - often used to organize protests - and imposing tougher rules on foreign-funded campaign and lobby groups.
Putin, who spoke before leaving London after meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron and watching judo at the Olympics, suggested the women would have faced swift punishment without trial if they had put on a similar performance in Israel or in Muslim areas of Russia's Caucasus.
"I think if the girls had desecrated something in, let's say, Israel - there are some pretty strong guys there, you know - it wouldn't be too easy for them to get out of there," Interfax quoted him as saying.
"Or if they went to the Caucasus and desecrated some sacred Muslim place, we would not even have time to protect them," he was quoted as saying.
Additional reporting by Natassia Astrasheuskaya, Gabriela Baczynska, Alissa de Carbonnel and Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Steve Gutterman and Timothy Heritage; Editing by and Roger Atwood