Russian authorities should 'immediately release' Pussy Riot detainees

‘These three activists have now been behind bars for months, awaiting a trial that should not be taking place’ - John Dalhuisen

Amnesty International has reiterated its call for the release of three members of the female punk group Pussy Riot after a court in Moscow today ruled that the three must remain in pre-trial custody for six months after singing a protest song in Moscow’s main Orthodox church.

Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who are accused of “hooliganism on the grounds of religious hatred”, face possible prison sentences of up to seven years. The preliminary hearing of the case will continue next week, on 23 July.

Amnesty considers the activists to be prisoners of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs.  

Since its establishment in 2011, the Pussy Riot group has conducted several performances in public places such as the Moscow underground, Red Square and on the roofs of buses.  In media interviews the group members have stated that they protest against, among other things, stifling of freedom of expression and assembly in Russia, the unfair political process and the fabrication of criminal cases against opposition activists.

Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Director John Dalhuisen said:

“These three activists have now been behind bars for months, awaiting a trial that should not be taking place.

“Even if the three arrested women did take part in the protest, the severity of the response of the Russian authorities and the detention on the serious criminal charge of hooliganism would not be a justifiable response to the peaceful - if, to many, offensive - expression of their political beliefs.

“The Russian authorities must drop the charges of hooliganism and immediately and unconditionally release these three women.”

Pussy Riot performed the protest song “Virgin Mary, redeem us of Putin” in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow on 21 February, with several group members covering their faces in balaclavas. The song called on Virgin Mary to become a feminist and banish Vladimir Putin. It also criticised the dedication and support shown to Putin by some representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was one of a number of performances intended as a protest against Mr Putin in the run-up to Russia’s March presidential elections.

The Russian authorities subsequently arrested Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova on 4 March, and Ekaterina Samutsevich on 15 March, claiming they were the masked singers. One of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, has admitted to being a member of the larger Pussy Riot group and taking part in the protest, while the other two deny any involvement in the cathedral protest.

John Dalhuisen added:

“Even if the action was calculated to shock and was known to be likely to cause offence, the
activists left the Cathedral when requested to do so and caused no damage. The entire action lasted only a few minutes and caused only minimal disruption to those using the Cathedral for other, notably religious, purposes.

“The broader political context surrounding the anti-Putin protests at the time - and the anticlerical, anti-Putin content of the activists’ message (themselves unpunishable) - have clearly and unlawfully been taken into account in the charges that have been brought against them.”

A video montage of the song available on the internet has led to a wide debate about the protest. The press secretary of President-elect Vladimir Putin called the protest despicable and said it would be followed up “with all the necessary consequences”. Although a representative of the Orthodox Church initially called for mercy for the protesters, subsequent statements by representatives of the Church have called for harsh punishment and for the women to be prosecuted for inciting hatred on grounds of religion. The women’s relatives have reportedly also received anonymous death threats.

Amnesty has pointed out that the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held that freedom of expression applies not only to inoffensive ideas, “but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”.

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