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Pussy Riot Members Arrested and In Jail for 5 Months in Russia

July 30, 2012

Women who spoke out against religion and the government in Russia have been in jail for five months now after giving a performance that irritated Putin:

Three Russian feminist rockers rejected charges of hooliganism for performing a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s main cathedral against Vladimir Putin’s return as president as a trial against them opened in earnest on Monday. The charges could carry a punishment of up to seven years in prison.

The three members of the Pussy Riot band — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, Maria Alekhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29 — have been in custody for five months since their February stunt. Their prosecution has caused a sharp public divide and drawn protests from rights groups who have declared them prisoners of conscience.

The trial began July 20 but the first sessions were devoted to procedural issues. On Monday, with the court turning to the substance of the case, Tolokonnikova and other defendants said in statements read by their lawyer that their goal was to express their resentment over Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill’s support for Putin’s rule.

They pleaded not guilty to the official charges of hooliganism driven by “religious hatred.” Tolokonnikova said she felt sorry if some of the believers felt insulted by their act, but that they didn’t mean to offend anyone. It wasn’t clear how long the trial might last, but a court has recently ruled that the women should be kept in custody for another half-year.

Should we be laughing here in the States because Russia has a quaint criminal term for a woman speaking her mind, “hooliganism” in Russia being code for silencing the female perspective? Should we be concerned that there seems to be no place to offer a critique of religion without being censored, not in Sweden, not in any of the Arabic countries, not Israel, not in Germany (where religious critique of cutting off the tip of a baby boy’s penis constitutes harming them), not in the U.S. where we can’t even mention banning cutting boys’ penis skin for fear of aggravating Jews, where we can’t burn the Koran for fear of pissing off people in Afghanistan or Iraq, where we can’t depict Mohammed or publish cartoons for somehow eliciting a sentiment that terrorists might attack?  Has all this heartfelt sympathy for a religious ideology just ushered in an unrealistic sense of fear concerning the discussion of  religion itself, a deadly discussion now? Really and truly we are having an honest discussion about jailing a musical act for “hooliganism”?

In Russia, hooliganism is described as the following type of act, description courtesy of Yahoo News:

Two weeks before March’s presidential election five women dressed in brightly colored miniskirts and balaclavas — masks that cover their faces entirely and leave only the eyes uncovered — and took over the church’s pulpit for less than a minute. They high-kicked and danced around while singing a song pleading “Virgin Mary, drive Putin away!” that also contained diatribes against the top Orthodox clergy. They bowed and blessed themselves as security guards arrived to take them out. The performance was videotaped and immediately became an Internet hit. The act followed a series of other recent performances by the group, including one from atop a bus and another one from a jail roof. Shortly before their church stunt, they became an Internet sensation for a song titled “Putin Chickens Out” from a spot on Red Square used in czarist Russia for announcing government decrees.

I can’t find the “Putin Chickens Out” video just yet, but I am still looking. Thank God for the Russian people, who seem to have a better understanding of religious freedom than the government, closely aligned with the church, and the church itself.

Defense attorneys have repeatedly asked for them to be released, in particular so they can take care of their young children.

The Khamovniki District Court building on Friday was surrounded by dozens of riot policemen, along with the band’s supporters and critics. The court proceedings were closed to the public.

Amnesty International said on Friday that it considers the three women to be prisoners of conscience “detained solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs.” The organization renewed its call on Russian authorities to drop the charges of hooliganism and release the band members.

The church says the women deserve to be prosecuted for their “blasphemous” performance from a place near the altar on which no lay people are allowed to stand. But thousands of believers have signed a petition urging the church to forgive the band.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that a government that entwines itself with religion should find a combination protest appalling, but enough to jail these women? The fact that the government’s position sounds remarkably like a witch hunt rather than a criminal proceeding, seems not to deter the Russian government in the least.  In fact, they proclaim the same old story that reeks of chauvinism, women equated with the devil, lack of respect for patriarchy equating to a sin against humanity, blah, blah, blah:

“This is only the small, visible tip of an iceberg of extremists,” Mikhail Kuznetsov, a lawyer representing church security guards, said in an interview with the newspaper Moscow News on Thursday. “They are aiming to destroy the thousand-year-old traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, to provoke a schism, and to deceivingly bring the flock not towards God, but towards Satan.”

Helloooo, Russia, we did that already here in the U.S., or have you forgotten the Salem with trials? The fact that the Russian government even takes this seriously is a sign of its demise, its insecurity.  This sounds like more Cold War paranoia than twenty first century musical critique. Guess you can take the Cold War out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the Cold War era.

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