The Persecution of Pussy Riot: A sign of things to come?

On February 21 2012, Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of feminist punk rock band ‘Pussy Riot’, entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest against the recent support of the Russian Orthodox Church for the re- election to presidency of Vladimir Putin. Wearing brightly coloured balaclavas to hide their identities, they vigorously kicked and punched the air whilst performing their Punk Prayer, asking the Virgin Mary to ‘drive Putin away’. Their performance lasted less than a minute.

Ekaterina Samutsevich (29) Maria Alyokhina (24) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (22) – Members of Pussy Riot

On August 17 2012, after months in detention, they were sentenced to two years imprisonment charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’. On appeal, Ekaterina was released whilst the convictions of Maria and Nadezhda were upheld. Maria and Nadezhda have since been sent to separate penal colonies up to 500km away from Moscow which were once part of the notorious gulag system.

The excessive punishments, vague charges and persecution of Pussy Riot in the State media stamp this case with all the hallmarks of a typical show trial, intended as a warning. The charge of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ is ludicrous and was deliberately used to ‘justify’ disproportionate sentences. Whilst those present in the Cathedral would no doubt have been offended by the actions of Maria, Ekaterina and Nadezhda, in no way can the performance be seen as anything other than a purely political protest. This was an attack on the lack of separation between the Church and the State, not on Russian Orthodoxy itself.

What Maria, Ekaterina and Nadezhda should have been charged with, if at all, was a mere public order offence, imposing a fine (Art 5.26(2) Administrative Offences Code). However, the Kremlin realised that this would not send out a strong enough warning to the growing opposition movement. By turning their political attack into a religious attack Putin was able to create a sense of urgency, describing their actions as representing the ‘destruction of the moral foundations of our society’. Implicitly, Putin was trying to portray any legitimate opposition to his rule as threatening such moral foundations.

However, whilst opinion towards Pussy Riot within Russia remains mixed, international support for Pussy Riot could not have been stronger. Musicians around the world including Madonna and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers have all voiced their support for Pussy Riot, launching the punk band into a global phenomenon and a voice for all those silenced by authoritarian regimes. What Putin saw as the chance to assert his authority domestically, has led to the demise of his authority internationally. Although Maria and Nadezhda are languishing in penal colonies 500km away from Moscow it is clear that it is they and not Putin which have succeeded in their aims. They have shown Putin for what he truly is: a paranoid authoritarian leader willing to trample on and destroy human rights in a desperate attempt to cling to power.

However, it is important that the world continues to speak out not only against the flagrant human rights violations which have occurred in this case but also against the host of hastily drafted laws which have recently been passed by the Russian Duma, further threatening the protection of fundamental rights. In recent months just some of the laws introduced include:

  • A law requiring NGOs (including Amnesty International) which receive funding from abroad to register as ‘foreign agents’.
  • An internet blacklisting law allowing the Russian government to take websites offline without trial.
  • A law expanding the definition and scope of ‘treason’.

It is clear that the persecution of Pussy Riot is a sign of things to come under Putin’s leadership. With the possibility of Putin staying in power until 2024 it is essential that the world does not stand by and watch Russia return to the dark days of the Soviet Union.

Pussy Riot are featured as part of Amnesty’s Write for Rights Campaign 2012. See http://www.amnesty.org.uk/write for information on how to send Maria and Nadezhda a message of support.

By Elliot Emery

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