Свободу Pussy Riot!

by Carl Gardner on August 1, 2012

An important trial’s going on at the moment in Moscow – one that may be important for the future of political opposition to Vladimir Putin, and that potentially tells us a lot about what’s going on in Russia. You can witness the crime itself in the video above.

Pussy Riot is an anonymous punk feminist collective. We’re told at freepussyriot.org that

Through a series of peaceful performances in highly visible places, the group has given voice to basic rights under threat in Russia today, while expressing the values and principles of gender equality, democracy and freedom of expression contained in the Russian constitution and other international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CEDAW Convention.

They’re funny and cool, as you can see from this interview some of them gave to Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer – and they’re certainly opponents of President Putin. In February, they took over part of a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Moscow and performed the anti-Putin song and dance routine you can see on the video – the music owing a clear debt to Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditse Dyevo. As I understand it, Pussy Riot were symbolically praying for the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.

Since March, three members of Pussy Riot have been remanded in custody awaiting trial on the charge of hooliganism, which under section 213(2) of the Russian Criminal Code (a less user-friendly but more up-to-date version can be found here) can be punished by up to seven years’ imprisonment. The women have been refused bail since March in spite of the fact that what they did was obviously not dangerous, and that two of them have children.

It’s easy to criticise foreign legal systems without knowing much about them; but this clearly disproportionate refusal of bail, for an offence that hardly merits a risk of imprisonment, clearly shows that what’s happening is unfair. Lawyers for the defence say their clients have been mistreated during the trial itself.

Based on what we see in the video it’s hard to imagine how they can be convicted at all of an offence which is defined as

a gross violation of the public order which expresses patent contempt for society, attended by violence against private persons or by the threat of its use, and likewise by the destruction or damage of other people’s property

or

a gross violation of the public order manifested in patent contempt of society and attended by the use of weapons or articles used as weapon

which are the two English-language versions of the offence set out in the translations of the Criminal Code I linked to earlier.

You have to be a particularly sensitive member of the Russian Orthodox Church (witnesses have been complaining of the deep spiritual pain caused them by Pussy Riot, and they’ve been accused of praying to the devil and of pointing their bottoms towards god) or faint-hearted supporter of Mr. Putin to think this a gross breach of public order. But the deputy editor of Moscow News doubts that the court will determine the case purely on its legal and factual merits. The Russian justice system is on trial, more than the women in the dock.

Here’s an editorial about the case from the FT, and a Time piece about the trial. And here’s what appears to be a reasonably fair account of the trial on Russia Today. RAPSI has live updates of the trial, and the campaign in support of Pussy Riot is at freepussyriot.org.

Incidentally, I recorded a discussion on free speech and social media for Voice of Russia UK this afternoon, with Mark Pack, Vanessa Barnett and Professor Ian Cram. In the half hour discussion we referred to a variety of cases – the Twitter joke trial and the case of Guy Adams for instance – and when we discussed anonymity on the web briefly, I mentioned how important anonymity is to protest groups like Pussy Riot. I made no comment on the trial, and no criticism of the court or the Russian government. But when the programme was aired at 3.30 today, I noticed my reference to Pussy Riot had been edited out.

Free Pussy Riot!

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matt Wardman August 1, 2012 at 21:04

It’s strange what causes offence, and which areas different people treat as sacred. We all have them.

ISTM that in some way this is to do with symbols and sacred spaces inside our minds/cultures, how they relate to ‘our’ part of the outside world and how we relate to the similar symbols and spaces of others.

It also tells us much about the ROC / Russian State / Russian nation relationship, and perhaps about how the physical church has a different – much, much more intimitely important – status in Orthdoxy than it would in a Protestant culture.

iSTM that the form of protest was a little strange, in that PR seems to have used a non-involved party as a stage, and the Russian State and ROC is reacting as if an ‘attack on the ROC was one on a State’. They are seen to have trampled on the State’s scared space.

And I think that gives context to the level of the reaction.

To draw an analogy, consider the level of offence caused if Fathers for Justice staged a ‘protest performance’ in a Womens’ Refuge, which I think I can consider to be a perceived inviolable (‘sacred’) space.

Or try walking into the Dome of the Rock with your shoes on, and see what happens (or doesn’t happen – I have never tried it !).

Or, for a lawyer, expressing a public view about unthinking bigotry in conversations to reach a verdict inside the Jury Room.

On the other hand consider the level of personalised demonisation which resulted when Prof Dawkins merely expressed an ‘unnacceptable’. opinion about the ElevatorGate incident last year in a mere comment on a blog.

I agree absolutely that that is an overreaction, but I don’t think that perverse law (even on freedom of expression) is unique to Russia, just different (and more extensive) from what we have here.

We have had a spate of ludicrous Twitter arrests and prosecutions, which seem to be every bit a trumped up as the above, all carrying potential sentences of months or years.

We also have strange judgements where ‘our’ culture is (inhumanely?) imposed on situations where everyone is satisfied, just living in a way which doesn’t fit in. eg
http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/COP/2012/2183.html.

We also have situations where people can be imprisoned for having pictures of legal acts.
http://heresydungeon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/the-trial-of-simon-walsh-at-kingston.html

We also have our tinpot globalised-jurisdiction defamation laws, but I’ll leave that for another time.

2 Revenge of the Claw August 4, 2012 at 19:48

I’ve found it difficult to sympathise with Pussy Riot or their plight quite simply because going into a house of worship, or any home or business, uninvited, to make a political statement contrary to the views of those whose venue it is, it’s just juvenile, silly behaviour and anyone who values the golden rule and broad libertarianism should be circumspect about providing anything that could be construed as encouraging such actions.

It IS hooligan behaviour, and I feel quite comfortable putting this in the “Russian internal affairs” basket.

3 Revenge of the Claw August 4, 2012 at 19:56

Just another comment on Russia more broadly, since I moved to Britain I’ve noticed a marked tendency towards criticism of Russia, unrestrained by anything resembling a sense of humility (or often hypocrisy).

I mean, this country has hereditary lords in its upper chamber, for goodness sake! It’s not exactly a model of police excellence either (look at Operation Weeting, Motorman, Stephen Lawrence, Sam Hallam, the Brazilian they shot, and of course Mark Duggan, and the guy they pushed over during the protests… London, insofar as it still seems to have an extraordinary degree of social and business connections between plain-clothes police and the criminal milieu, and of course the kinds of stuff with deaths in custody you don’t really see in Australia, Canada or New Zealand anymore).

It’s a global arms proliferator, a protector of British-flagged secrecy havens, notably laggard in abolishing the property franchise (about 70 years after even New South Wales!), is remarkably regressive when it comes to anything that resembles popular or democratic reform, etc.

I suppose my observation is that Brits seem to have an extraordinary problem with the way they interact with the rest of the world, and so many of them are incredibly ignorant about both their own country and others, and seem far too eager to give their opinion about other people’s affairs while not being particularly capable of dealing with their own!

4 thelawcourt August 6, 2012 at 16:57

A clear infringement of human rights. It just highlights how bizarre things can get when you juxtapose religion and the judiciary – but hopefully this trial will see some sort of judicial change. Imagine what would have happened to the girls had this transpired in patriarchal societies such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan…

5 thelawcourt August 6, 2012 at 22:54

In fact – sorry to make this domestic – but remember in the UK a certain terror suspect has been detained for seven years without bail. I recently made a post about Abu Qatada being rebuffed again :

http://thelawcourt.com/abu-qatadas-bail-attempts-rebuffed-once-again/

He has pretty draconian bail conditions such as a 22 hour curfew – I personally find that extreme. He has wanted to go to Jordan for seven years. In regards to the Pussy Riot’s trial, I hope that the litigation’s result will help change the political landscape of Russia.

6 Matt Wardman August 7, 2012 at 07:46

@thelawcourt

>He has wanted to go to Jordan for seven years.

Perhaps that’s why he keeps appealing against attempts to send him there !

7 thelawcourt August 7, 2012 at 13:07

Should have proof-read before posting that sentence! Thank you for pointing that out.

I would have thought it would be to his detriment if he returned to Jordan. As soon as Theresa May said in April he could return, an appeal was lodged. Returning would be unlikely since the UK have signed the UN Convention against Torture which prevents a nation state from deporting an individual to a place of potential torture. Given, too, the fact that he would be on trial for several counts of terrorist activity – the punishment would be severe. As we are all aware, torture is pretty commonplace in Jordan :

http://www.hrw.org/middle-eastn-africa/jordan

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: