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Cracking whips at Sochi: Russia's crackdown on free speech continues

It’s two years today since Pussy Riot climbed the steps to the altar of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and ‘performed’, jumping, chanting, with unplugged guitars and microphones. After a minute, they were removed from the church.

That single minute of protest became the Youtube protest song ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’ that led to their arrests in March.

On their release they pledged to keep fighting for human rights in Russia, and since the Sochi games started they’ve been harassed, arrested, released, and harassed again.

The Russian authorities have gone as far as to attack them with whips. I suspect this wasn’t the publicity Putin was after.

Taking your message directly to Moscow

Two weeks ago I joined the Head of our Moscow office, Sergei Nikitin, and fellow Amnesty directors from six other countries to hand Amnesty’s global petition, 336,412 names strong, to President Putin’s office.

We went to Moscow call for an end to this attack on free speech, and to show our solidarity with Sergei and his colleagues, and for those who have been unfairly imprisoned  in Putin’s human rights crackdown.

Before we handed in the petition, we staged a ‘single-person’ protest with a ballerina who danced beautifully in -30°C, in a remote park (it’s impossible to get permission to do these things in public places, or in greater numbers). We attracted huge media attention, all of it from outside, but this wasn’t a surprise to us.. I reminded myself that despite the posturing, Russia does care what the rest of the world think of her.

At the same time, back in London another ballet protest was also making waves in the media.

The media turned out in force at both protests with good reason.  Despite last December’s amnesty, people are still locked up for speaking out. The highlight of my few days in Moscow was meeting those who risk so much to fight for what they believe in.

Your support and actions mean a lot

I met with Ekaterina Samutsevitch from Pussy Riot who served 6 months in jail for ‘hooliganism’ before being released. Since her release she continues to campaign for freedom of expression. She asked me to pass on her thanks:

'Your support and your actions meant a lot and were very important to us. I am confident that without them we would not have been released. I am also sure that Putin and the Russian authorities are very much scared of you!

'Pussy Riot, from Russia with love!'
Ekaterina Samutsevitch

I also met former Bolotnaya detainee Vladimir Akimenkov and relatives of those still detained: Ksenia Kosenko, the sister of Mikhail Kosenko and Stella Anton, the mother of Denis Lutskevich.

It is quite clear that the Bolotnaya square demonstration on the eve of Putin’s inauguration in May 2012 was a watershed in Russian human rights policy. The peaceful demonstration was brutally clamped down and those trying to stop the violence by the police are now absurdly charged with inciting a mass riot.

Mikhail Kosenko has already been sentenced to indefinite forcible treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Ksenia told us that she is able to get him the medication he needs, paying for it from her own pocket. The last time she met her brother the only time he smiled was when he showed her a card of support written in very poor Russian by an Amnesty member.

Vladimir told us of prison conditions and Denis’ mother Stella told us with tears in her eyes on how proud she was of her son, who tried to stop the police from beating others. Now of course he himself, at the time bruised black and blue, is facing a long prison sentence.

Our small Moscow office is simply wonderful, working hard with other activists and determined to make a difference. If you can, please consider donating to help our Moscow office and Russia campaign work

The arrests and crackdown haven't stopped

Everyone I talked to was afraid of what would happen after the Sochi Olympics, but the authorities are cracking down even as the Games started.

Yevgeny Vitishko, an environment activist, was jailed for ‘swearing at a bus stop’ in a move obviously designed to keep him off the streets during the Games. An appeal hearing – against a 3-year sentence connected to his environmental activism during the Olympics construction – was moved forward to coincide with this jail time. He’s now on his way to a penal colony having lost the appeal. Needless to say, we consider him a prisoner of conscience.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old journalist Elena Klimova has been charged under Russia’s new ‘gay propaganda’ laws for running a website, Deti-404, that offers information and advice for LGBTI teenagers – many of them dealing with bullying, rejection and suicidal thoughts.

 If she’s found guilty, Deti-404 will be shut down, and Elena will face a hefty fine. This safe space for teenagers seeking help and advice will be closed under the guise of ‘protecting the younger generation’.

You helped Pussy Riot two years ago and the Bolotnaya protesters last year. Take action now for Yevgeny and take action for Elena

We will remain vigilant. We cannot take our eyes off Russia.

Update, 2.25pm: It seems the authorities can't go a day without adding to their attacks on human rights. We've just heard that the politically-motivated Bolotnaya protest trials have put six more prisoners of conscience behind bars, including Denis, whose mother I met in Moscow. We'll hear their sentences on Monday. It highlights how much we need you to speak out. Stand with those protesting and speaking out and take action for Yevgeny and Elena. I fear we'll need your help very shortly for more people.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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