Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July 2014, 15:15 GMT

Russia: Justice Fails at Pussy Riot Appeal

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 10 October 2012
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Russia: Justice Fails at Pussy Riot Appeal, 10 October 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/50852dd42.html [accessed 30 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The court appeal against the conviction of three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot on October 10, 2012, failed to correct a miscarriage of justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The appeals court released one of the band members on parole, but left the two-year sentence intact for the other two.

The three women were sentenced in August to two years' imprisonment for "hate-motivated hooliganism" based on a political stunt in the area near the altar of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. The Moscow City Court released Ekaterina Samutsevich on parole because she was not among the band members who actually entered the area in front of the altar. The three women have been imprisoned since their arrest in March.

"Of course we're pleased that Samutsevich has been freed, but the women of Pussy Riot should never have been charged with a hate crime," said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "For real justice to be done, the court should also release the other two band members immediately."

Moscow's KhamovnicheskyDistrict Court found Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 23, and Samutsevich, 30, 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.

Four members of the group performed a 40-second political stunt, which they call a "punk prayer," on February 21 in Moscow's Russian Orthodox cathedral. Wearing brightly colored dresses and balaclavas, they sneaked into 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 Putin with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The judge concluded that that the women's actions were motivated by religious hatred and had caused grievous harm to Christian Orthodox believers. Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, andSamutsevich 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 how the Russian Patriarch Kirill openly supported Putin during the presidential election campaign.

In her ruling, the judge said the women "made no political statements and did not mention the name of a single politician."

On October 7, the day before the appeal hearings on the case, Putin told journalists he found the two-year sentence for "hooliganism" an appropriate punishment and that the three women "got what they wanted." At the same time, he emphasized that the matter was decided by a court of law, with no personal involvement on his part.

"A political statement doesn't need to mention a politician's name, and the women's message was obviously political," said Denber. "It's astounding that any court could find this stunt rose to the level of a hate crime. It's clear that some found their actions offensive, but even that cannot justify depriving the women of their liberty."

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.

The judge also argued that feminism, ultimately, was at the core of the "religious hatred" charge. "Feminism is not a violation of the law and is not a crime," the verdict stated. "Although feminism is not a religious precept, its proponents cross the line into the spheres of decency, morals, family relations." And asserting "the superiority of one ideology" at the expense of another, she said, can be grounds for enmity, hatred, and conflict.

"The judge argues that Pussy Riot's assertion of feminist ideology insulted Orthodox values and was somehow a 'hate crime,'" Denber said. "But if the aim of the stunt was to speak out against the cronyism betweenthe Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church, it was clearly political speech. And that's protected under Russian and international law."

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