Pussy Riot – freedom of speech on trial in Russia

by Stephanie Jones-Berry

WHAT an absolute festival of nonsense this Pussy Riot trial is, and a stunning reminder of how hard the Russian fist is falling in Moscow since Vladimir Putin ‘won’ the presidential elections in March.

Back in February, a group of colourfully-clad, balaclaved women, accompanied by a couple of journalists and some supporters, entered the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and performed an anti-Putin punk song on the steps of the pulpit – a stunt which lasted only 51 seconds before security guards intervened and led them away.

Three of those women, all belonging to the anonymous Russian feminist performance art collective known as Pussy Riot, were then swooped on by the delightful FSB, arrested, interrogated and incarcerated. This is where 23-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24-year-old Maria Alekhina and 29-year-old Ekaterina Samucevich have remained for the past five months awaiting their trial on charges of “hooliganism stemming from religious hatred” – a crime carrying a jail sentence of up to seven years.

Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of Nadezhda, has written in today’s Observer about the last five days – detailing court sessions lasting until 10pm, the alternating presence of a rottweiler or German shepherd adding menace to proceedings and the judge repeatedly disallowing the defence lawyers’ questions and refusing to hear their witnesses. He finishes the piece: “It’s 100 per cent sure the girls will be convicted. The question is only: how long will they get?”

In a valiant effort to make like he has no impact on this case, Putin told journalists in London at the end of last week he hoped the “girls” wouldn’t be judged “too severely”. After making some, frankly, sinister comparisons with how Pussy Riot might have been treated in Israel, he said: “The final decision rests with the courts – I hope the court will deliver a correct, well-founded ruling.” Hmm. Sure he does.

Human rights group Amnesty considers the women as prisoners of conscience, detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression and is calling on people to text their support.

But vitally, Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer last Sunday made the point that the three arrested members are less a name than a concept.

“It doesn’t matter which of them got arrested. That’s the point – that they’re not individuals, they’re an idea,” she said.

“The thing that has gripped Russia and caught the attention of the rest of the world too [is] that the Russian government has gone and arrested an idea and is prosecuting through the courts with a vindictiveness the Russian people haven’t before seen.”

This piece first appeared at The Broads’ Sheet.

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