ISSN 2330-717X

Russia: Pussy Riot Conviction Blow To Free Expression, Says HRW

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The conviction of three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot on August 17, 2012 is inappropriate and disproportionate, Human Rights Watch said today. The three women were convicted on charges of hate-motivated hooliganism and sentenced to two years in prison.

The three women have been in detention for over five months and should be released, Human Rights Watch said.

“The charges and verdict against the Pussy Riot band members distort both the facts and the law,” said Hugh Williamson. “These women should never have been charged with a hate crime and should be released immediately.”

Russia
Russia

Moscow’s Khamovnichesky District Court found 22-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23-year-old Maria Alyokhina, and 30-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich guilty on charges of hooliganism committed by a group of persons motivated by religious hatred, under article 213, part 2 of Russia’s criminal code.

The three women have been in pre-trial custody since their arrest in March. On July 20 the court refused to release them before trial and extended the period of pretrial custody by six months.

Four members of the group performed what they call a “punk prayer” on February 21 in Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral. Dressed in brightly colored dresses and wearing balaclavas, they sneaked onto the area in front of the iconostasis—a screen that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church—where the public is generally not supposed to enter.

They danced, jumped, and shouted some words to their song, “Virgin Mary, Get Putin Out.” The stunt lasted about a minute before they were forcibly removed from the premises, and caused no damage to church property.

The same day, a video widely shared on social media showed a montage of the stunt with the song spliced in. The song criticizes the Russian Orthodox Church’s alleged close relationship with the Kremlin and the personally close relationship of President Vladimir V. Putin with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The judge found in favor of the prosecution’s argument that the women’s actions were motivated by religious hatred and had caused grievous harm to Christian Orthodox believers. Prosecution witnesses included nine people who said they were profoundly offended by the stunt, including altar boys, security guards and candle sellers.

Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich have said their actions in the Cathedral aimed at criticizing the close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, as well as the way in which the two institutions reinforce each other’s conservative approaches on such issues as gender equality and rights for gay people. The group was particularly critical of the Russian Patriarch Kirill for his alleged calls on Orthodox believers to vote for Putin in the May presidential election.

“It’s clear in this case that the women’s aim was to make a political statement, and it’s also clear that some found their actions offensive,” Williamson said. “But there is still a long way to go between an offensive political statement and a hate crime.”

To correctly balance the rights of free speech and political opinion with protection of the rights of others, only conduct likely to incite imminent violence, discrimination or hostility against an individual or clearly defined group of people should be classified as a hate crime, Human Rights Watch said. It should also be clear that no other reasonable alternative preventive measures are available to respond to the conduct.

Although Human Rights Watch recognizes that abusive conduct may not be insulated from punishment simply because it may be accompanied by protected expression, the Russian authorities had other options for holding the band members accountable for their actions, including through articles of Russia’s code of administrative offenses.

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