On Friday, three members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for staging a peaceful protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin inside an Orthodox church. A judge rejected the argument their act was a form of political protest, instead ruling it was motivated by religious hatred. As the verdict came down Friday, solidarity protests took place in more than 60 cities around the world marking a global day of action. The Pussy Riot case was seen as a key test of how far Putin would go to crack down on dissidents during his third stint as president. We go to Moscow to speak with Alisa Obraztsova, a member of the legal team defending Pussy Riot, and Pyotr Verzilov, husband of jailed band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: During his speech on Sunday, from inside the Ecuadorean embassy, Julian Assange talked about oppression around the world.
JULIAN ASSANGE: On Friday, a Russian band was sentenced to two years in jail for a political performance.
AMY GOODMAN: The Russian band Julian Assange was referencing was Pussy Riot. On Friday, three members of the feminist punk group were sentenced to two years in prison for staging a peaceful protest against Russian leader Vladimir Putin inside an Orthodox church. On February 21st, several members of Pussy Riot rushed before the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour wearing brightly colored balaclavas. They genuflected, they danced, they issued a “punk prayer,” exhorting the Virgin Mary to “get Putin out.” Three group members—Nadia Tolokonnikova, Katja Samutsevich and Masha Alyokhina—have been jailed since March. On Friday, they were sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism” after a judge rejected the argument their act was a form of political protest, instead ruling it was motivated by religious hatred.
As the verdict came down on Friday, solidarity protests took place in more than 60 cities around the world. Here in New York, at least six people were arrested as dozens protested outside the Russian consulate, some wearing Pussy Riot’s signature balaclavas. Hundreds of Pussy Riot supporters also gathered outside the courthouse in Moscow on Friday. Dozens were reportedly arrested, including the opposition leader and chess champion, Garry Kasparov, who says he was brutally beaten by police.
The Pussy Riot case was seen as a key test of how far Russian leader Vladimir Putin would go to crack down against dissidents in his third stint as president of Russia.
Speaking from inside a “glass cage” in the courtroom as the trial wrapped up earlier this month, jailed Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina condemned Putin’s administration.
MARIA ALYOKHINA: [translated] When we talk about Putin, we have in mind, first and foremost, not Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, but Putin, the system, that he, himself, created, the power vertical, where all control is carried out effectively by one person. And that power vertical is uninterested, completely uninterested, in the opinion of the masses. And what worries me most of all is that the opinion of the younger generations is not taken into consideration. We believe that the ineffectiveness of this administration is evident in practically everything.
AMY GOODMAN: That was jailed Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina. The imprisoned activists drew support from around the world, with musicians including Madonna, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith and Red Hot Chili Peppers expressing support. On Friday, just after the guilty verdict was
announced, Democracy Now! spoke with feminist punk musician JD Samson of the two bands Le Tigre and MEN. We asked her to read some of the lyrics Pussy Riot performed during their “punk prayer” inside the church.
JD SAMSON: The song was called, “Punk Prayer 'Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away.'”
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
Put Putin away, put Putin away
Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners crawl to bow
The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains
The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist.
AMY GOODMAN: That was feminist punk musician, Pussy Riot supporter, JD Samson on Democracy Now! Friday.
Well, for more on Friday’s sentencing and the Pussy Riot trial, we’re going to Moscow, where we’re joined by Alisa Obraztsova, a lawyer’s assistant and member of the legal team defending Pussy Riot. She is in, well, a bit of a loud cafe in Moscow.
Alisa, thank you for joining us on Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of the conviction on Friday and the sentencing to two years in prison for these three members of Pussy Riot?
ALISA OBRAZTSOVA: Hello. Thank you very much for your interest in this case. I wanted to tell that, from this process, the very first that we should understand is that Russian courts are not independent, and we still live under telephone justice. This sentence, sentencing girls for two years and sending them in a penal colony, is unjust. And we are planning—of course we are planning to appeal in court of appeal in Russia and, after that, in European Court of Human Rights, because, for us, this is the only way to reach justice. In Russia, it’s impossible.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about who the judge was, what her record is?
ALISA OBRAZTSOVA: The judge—the judge’s name is Marina Syrova. As we understood from the process, she hadn’t made any decision during this court, because she was always taking breaks, for example, just to decide if we need online streaming of this court or not. She was—she didn’t hear—she hasn’t heard any arguments from the lawyers. She was—I can call her even cruel, because, you know, when the girls asked for a meal or asked to go to the toilet, she just made—she just said that, “Oh, we’ll do this after an hour and up to two years—hours.” Girls were in court for 12 hours a day. They were coming back to prison for five hours at night, and they were spending these hours not for sleep. They were spending these hours to prepare for the next day of court, because the court—trials were every day for 12 hours.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to also bring in Pyotr Verzilov, husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadia Tolokonnikova. He is also a performance artist and member of the art group Voina.
Welcome. Can you talk about what this means for your partner, for your wife?
PYOTR VERZILOV: Well, for Nadia, it’s been a very important step in her life, because, well, they’ve created Pussy Riot as an anonymous feminist collective to bring out very important issues in Russia’s political situation right now. And they’ve done it. And Putin is making them pay this horrible and brutal price for it. [inaudible] by it.
AMY GOODMAN: Pyotr, we’re having a little trouble understanding what you’re saying. But you were just saying about the statement Putin is making.
PYOTR VERZILOV: Yes, I’m sorry. The connection’s not that good. Yeah, so I’m saying that Putin—they’ve—the girls have created this dance to make a very bright, loud statement about what’s Putin doing to Russia, and Putin is now making them pay the price for making this statement.
AMY GOODMAN: In her closing statement at the trial earlier this month, Pussy Riot member Katja Samutsevich talked about the connection between church and state in Russia and described the significance of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, where the Pussy Riot protest took place.
KATJA SAMUTSEVICH: [translated] During the closing statement, the defendant is expected to repent or express regret for her deeds or to enumerate attenuating circumstances. In my case, as in the case of my colleagues in the group, this is completely unnecessary. Instead, I want to express my views about the causes of what has happened with us. The fact that Christ the Saviour Cathedral had become a significant symbol in the political strategy of our powers that be was already clear to many thinking people when Vladimir Putin’s former KGB colleague Kirill Gundyaev took over as head of the Russian Orthodox Church. After this happened, Christ the Saviour Cathedral began to be used openly as a flashy setting for the politics of the security services, which are the main source of power in Russia.
AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to play a clip of a member of the group Pussy Riot explaining what Pussy Riot means. This is a member who goes by the name Squirrel speaking in an interview for the British newpaper, The Observer, a few weeks ago.
SQUIRREL: Pussy Riot means rebel women, feminists. And it means that women are fed up with the sexist regime, with the situation, with this political system, and with religion at the same time, with our Christian church, yeah, and so this means Pussy Riot.
AMY GOODMAN: Pussy Riot is known for wearing brightly colored balaclavas when they appear in public for protest actions. This is a clip of members of the group talking about why they wear these masks, two of the members who go by the names Squirrel and Sparrow being interviewed by a—for the British newspaper, the Observer, late last month.
SPARROW: It’s the main conception, the main—one of the main ideas of the group, to be—
SPARROW: Yeah, to be anonymous.
SPARROW: So, that’s why wear their masks.
REPORTER: And why the bright colors?
SQUIRREL: Because we’re—we’re bright!
SPARROW: Yeah, yeah.
SQUIRREL: Like, when I put on my mask, I don’t feel like a person who can do everything. Of course I’m the same person, but this is another part of me, which has more courage and which wants—which has strong feeling that what she’s doing is right and she has enough power to change something, enough strength.
AMY GOODMAN: Pussy Riot drew widespread support from musicians and activists around the world, including Madonna. This is a clip of Madonna speaking in support of the band during a recent performance in Moscow.
MADONNA: I know there are many sides to every story, and I have—and I mean no disrespect to the church or the government, but I think that these three girls—Masha, Katja, Nadia—yes, I think that they have done something courageous. I think they have paid the price for this act, and I pray for their freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the singer Madonna. Among the other musicians supporting the jailed Pussy Riot members is the singer-songwriter Patti Smith. This is a clip of her being interviewed by the Norwegian broadcasting company, NRK.
PATTI SMITH: That’s why, for instance, I’m wearing this T-shirt today, because I’m very concerned with the young girls in Moscow who are on trial for—for just being free, for expressing themselves. They’re young people filled with energy, with—idealistic. And the consequences of idealism don’t always occur to a young person. And so, you know, it’s a small way to show my solidarity.
AMY GOODMAN: Before the verdict was announced, Russian President Vladimir Putin had reportedly said he didn’t think the women should be judged too harshly. This is a clip from Al Jazeera of Putin speaking to reporters about Pussy Riot.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] I don’t think that the verdict for what they have done should be very severe. I hope they will reach a conclusion by themselves. After all, the final decision should be made by the court.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Russian President Vladimir Putin. Alisa Obraztsova, talk about the significance of the world support for the three women who have now been sentenced to two years and what—and the significance of what Putin is saying right here, the possibilities of appeal.
ALISA OBRAZTSOVA: From our point of view, Putin’s statement doesn’t cost a lot, actually, because this was made only for people all around the world, not for Russia, not for Russian society. His opinion—the opinion he’s pronouncing is taken by the court very sensitive, but it’s—you know, they really understand very well what the government wants from them. Actually, she can sentence them to seven years or to three years, as the prosecutor asked, but sentencing them for two years, she’s trying to—she’s trying to tell us that she heard what Putin has told and she has sentenced them to only two years.
As for the worldwide support, girls appreciate that a lot. They even told that Madonna, by doing this Pussy Riot statement, became one of Pussy Riot members. They’ve already heard, of course, about people in more than 60 cities supporting them on this Pussy Riot Global Days, and, for them, this is more important than the sentence, because they estimate the trial as nothing. So they do not wait from nothing anything. For them, the trial is the society, the society all around the world. That’s why this is much more, much more important to them.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what happens next, Alisa? There were sentenced to two years in jail. Does that include the five months that they have already served?
ALISA OBRAZTSOVA: Of course, hopefully, it includes five months that they already spent in prison. The next step is to appeal in court of appeal in Russia. Unfortunately, we do not think that this decision will change their term a lot. Maybe they decided to reduce it to two years and a half, maybe not. We really hope that European Court of Human Rights will help us, but we all need to understand that this will take a lot of time. And the most—the worst thing in all this story is that after the court of appeal’s decision, the girls will be sent to the penal colony. And we are really afraid about their lives, because, well, just imagine, there are 140 women in one block, and doesn’t matter what crime they have committed. They are all very, very religious. And we are really afraid that they just cannot understand that this action was about politics, not about the religion. That’s why we really need to—this media—the interest of media in their lives after the court, because this is their defense.
AMY GOODMAN: Alisa Obraztsova, I want to thank you very much for being with us—
ALISA OBRAZTSOVA: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —lawyer’s assistant with Pussy Riot’s legal defense team, joining us from a cafe in Moscow. Again, Pussy Riot members have been sentenced to two years in prison.
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