Maria Alyokhina, Jailed Pussy Riot Member, Drops Release Plea To Support Band Mate On Hunger Strike

10/18/2013 06:23 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
AP

By Anastasia Gorelova

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Pussy Riot punk band member Maria Alyokhina on Friday dropped her plea for early release from jail to show support for a band mate on hunger strike to protest against prison conditions.

Alyokhina, 25, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are serving two-year sentences for a profanity-laced protest against President Vladimir Putin in Russia's main cathedral.

"I have no moral right to take part in this court hearing at a time when my friend and fellow convict Nadezhda Tolokonnikova does not have such an opportunity," Alyokhina told the court in the Volga river city of Nizhny Novgorod.

Tolokonnikova, 24, was taken to hospital last month on the ninth day of a hunger strike to protest against what she called "slave labour" at Corrective Colony No. 14 in the Mordovia region, southeast of Moscow, where she is serving her sentence.

She renewed her hunger strike on Friday after being transferred back to the prison late on Thursday evening, her husband Pyotr Verzilov said in a statement.

In a letter from jail last month, Tolokonnikova alleged she had received death threats from a senior prison official and said inmates were forced to work up to 17 hours a day in a system of collective punishment reminiscent of Soviet-era forced labour camps.

Prison authorities have dismissed Tolokonnikova's accusations that the jail is run in violation of Russian law and human rights standards. Investigators have said they are looking into her allegations.

"It is extremely strange and disgusting to me that a convict in Russia is no more than the profit-making property of the authorities," Alyokhina told the court on Friday.

"I declare my protest against this, and I declare this protest from the inside, from this pit they are pushing us all into," she said from a cage in the courtroom.

The court accepted the withdrawal of her appeal.

CATHEDRAL PROTEST

Tolokonnikova and two other band members were convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for a February 2012 protest in which they burst into Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral and prayed to the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.

Their protest and imprisonment divided Russians. The majority of people - liberals and conservatives alike - in the predominantly Orthodox Christian nation were offended by a protest deemed blasphemous by church leaders. But opinion polls showed fewer Russians approved of such a tough sentence.

Kremlin critics say their trial was part of a crackdown on dissent since Putin was elected to a third presidential term 12 days after the Pussy Riot protest. Western states have called their sentences excessive.

Putin, who denies interfering with the judiciary, has made Russian Orthodox values a pillar of his presidency and said the Pussy Riot members got what they asked for.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, both of whom have young children, are due for release in March. Previous bids for early release have been rejected by the courts. A third band member had her sentence suspended. (Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; editing by Barry Moody)

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