By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Security guards scuffled on Wednesday with masked protesters demonstrating outside Moscow's main cathedral in support of members of the Pussy Riot punk band who are on trial for an irreverent protest at the same church.
Witnesses said 18 demonstrators in colorful balaclavas like those worn by the band mounted the steps of Christ the Saviour Cathedral and held up placards reading: "Blessed are the merciful".
Guards moved swiftly to disperse the demonstrators and treated some of them roughly, Internet TV channel Dozhd reported. Ekho Moskvy radio said five people were detained.
A Moscow court is to issue its verdict on Friday in the trial of three women who sang a "punk prayer" on the altar of Christ the Saviour in February, calling on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of President Vladimir Putin, then prime minister.
Prosecutors want the judge to convict Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentence each to three years in prison.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups called for protests around the world to support the jailed musicians on the day of the verdict.
Amnesty International in Washington said a senior counselor at the Russian embassy refused to discuss "more than 70,000 petitions urging Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the women."
"This representative of President Putin and his government not only rejected Amnesty International's pleas to take our concerns to Moscow, he unceremoniously dumped the petitions on the sidewalk. If this and other actions taken by Russian authorities are any indication, Putin's vision for the country is a complete breakdown of a free and just society," it said.
The accused say they were protesting against close ties between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader supported Putin during his successful campaign in a presidential election in March.
They have been held in jail since shortly after their performance, which offended many people in mostly Orthodox Christian Russia. Kremlin critics see their trial as part of a crackdown on dissent as Putin starts a new six-year term.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Robin Pomeroy)