A Moscow court hears the appeal Wednesday of feminist punks Pussy Riot against their two-year prison camp sentence for staging a protest stunt in Russia's main cathedral, after President Vladimir Putin appeared to give his blessing to the verdict.
Maria Alyokhina, 24, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, are seeking to contest their conviction days after Putin said on national television that jailing them was the "right decision".
The trio, two of whom are young mothers, were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for storming into the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February and staging a balaclava-clad performance.
Calls for their freedom have been taken up by some of the world's most famous figures, from Madonna to Yoko Ono, and Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi last month called for their immediate release.
The first appeal hearing on October 1 was unexpectedly adjourned when Samutsevich announced she was firing her lawyer and said she did not agree with the defence team's view of the case.
The women's lawyers, who have worked as a tight-knit team, said Samutsevich is under pressure from friends and expressed concern that she may break the unity of the group by pleading guilty in hopes of a shorter sentence.
In a special film made by state-owned NTV and aired on Putin's 60th birthday Sunday, the Russian leader laughed when the interviewer asks him about Pussy Riot, calling the band "talented" for making everyone repeat its "indecent" name.
Pressed to comment on the court's decision to jail the three women, Putin said: "It was right to arrest them and it was right that the court took the decision that it did.
He added that the band's anti-Putin song "Virgin Mary, redeem us of Putin!" was added to the viral video of their performance to divert attention from the actual stunt in the church to politics and make Pussy Riot famous.
"I didn't have anything to do with it," Putin said about the women's sentence. "They wanted it and they got it."
But Tolokonnikova's lawyer Mark Feigin said Putin's remarks displayed extensive knowledge of the case documents, which only proved his personal involvement.
"He is clearly interested, involved, and regularly informed on the case," he said. "He demonstrated what he thinks about the court judgement without waiting for the appeal to decide whether or not it was fair."
"This is direct pressure on the court," he told AFP. "In an authoritarian system, even if the judges don't receive direct orders, they will take his opinion into account."
Before the appeal process started, a call by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for the trio to be given a suspended sentence and released as well as signs of mercy from the powerful Russian Orthodox Church had given rise to some hopes among their supporters.
However the lawyers have cautioned that a shortening of the verdict rather than an acquittal is the most they can hope for, a prediction that Putin's latest comments did little to dispell.
Under Russian law, an appeal contests both the conviction itself and the length of the punishment.
The hearing is due to start in the Moscow city court at 0700 GMT with a decision possible, although far from certain, on the same day.
The women have been held in a Moscow prison since their March arrest. Footage from their cells recently published on the website of opposition magazine The New Times show modest quarters of two metal bunkbeds and some cupboards covered with flowery oilcloths.