THE BLOG

Pussy Riot: One Out, Two to Go (to Prison)

Pussy Riot's Yekaterina Samutsevich is now free, but Moscow's city court upheld two-year sentences for bandmates Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. Samutsevich's newly appointed attorney successfully persuaded the appellate court that while she was present in the Christ the Savior Church she did not sing and dance on the altar with the other women during the now-famous punk prayer.

The freed member of Pussy Riot has already pledged her unwavering support to the punk rock collective despite her newfound freedom, and promised to fight for her friends who remain imprisoned. Samutsevich's sentence was suspended, and she will remain on probation for two years while she takes her case further to the European Court of Human Rights. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina will now work with their lawyers on another appeal in Russia.

The court also ruled on Wednesday that all of the expert testimony used during the initial trial to evaluate the content of the punk prayer will stand, denying the defendants' request to use alternative independent expert analysis. This denied motion was crucial, as the investigation and prosecution rested almost entirely on the testimony of questionable experts who helped establish that the punk prayer was an act of hooliganism motivated by religious intolerance. The three women from Pussy Riot were convicted under article 213 (part 2) of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility."

Hooliganism statutes are often used to prosecute violent hate crimes, including those committed by neo-Nazi skinheads, whose heinous racist murderers have been previously referred to as "hooligans" by state authorities and are the origin for the statute's title. In order for the criminal code's article 213.2 to be applied, it is absolutely necessary to establish the motivation of hostility, without which it would be impossible to penalize the women with more than a fine.

The experts used in investigation and prosecution were Vsevolod Troitsky, Vera Abramenkova, and Igor Ponkin. The three experts have one thing in common: their history of aiding other proceedings targeting dissent, artists or religious groups. Let's take a closer look at their record:
  • In 2008, Igor Ponkin's expert opinion (written jointly) about an episode of South Park ("Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo") almost resulted in the show's banning in Russia. At about the same time, Dr. Ponkin, who is a prominent critic of the European Court's decisions on church-state relations, authored a federal bill aimed at "curbing dangerous trends" in the sphere of spiritual and ethical education by targeting emo, goth and skinhead (all lumped together) subcultures through heavy website regulation and the banning of fashion attributes from schools and government buildings. The bill went nowhere then, but similar legislative efforts in Russia have been enacted this year.
  •  Expert psychologist Vera Abramenkova played a role in the first verdict against the executive director of the Sakharov Center Yuri Samodurov for helping to organize the 2003 "Caution, Religion" exhibition. Dr. Abramenkova aided the prosecutors by testifying that "the sacrilegious comparison of a sanctity and a mass product, of the high and the low, contains a provocation, and causes reciprocal hostile actions on the part of the recipient, the development of affective reactions, and aggressive and intolerant relations between individuals and social groups on the grounds of their religious beliefs." In 2007, Abramenkova -- together with Igor Ponkin -- contributed to a collection of essays titled "Gay-parade as an element of the globalism of militant immorality."
  • Professor Vsevolod Troitsky is well-known to Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses believers. Ten years ago, when state pressure on the Jehovah's Witnesses began to increase, Troitsky served as an expert chosen to "investigate" their literature for signs of incitement of ethnic or religious discord. The lawyers cited Troitsky, whose writings state that the Jehovah's Witness activity was "aimed at disconnecting Russians' feelings of civil attachment, is of a destructive nature, and objectively works towards the destruction of the national and state security of Russia, and should be officially banned." These yearly cases against the religious group paved the way for major infringements on religious freedom in Russia, like the ongoing prosecution of ten believers charged with establishing an "extremist community" in Chuvashia.
In the Pussy Riot case, the three experts scrutinized the video clip of the punk prayer through "psychological, linguistic, and judicial-linguistic" lenses and concluded that the accused had indeed conspired to violate public norms and showed considerable contempt for the society overall and religious believers in particular, and that the motive was religious hatred

There you have it: last week's verdict to keep Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina locked up is based on a politically motivated reading of Russia's constitutional norms and the flawed testimony of biased experts. The jailed members of Pussy Riot are guilty of engaging in a blasphemous performance that no doubt offended some believers, but Russia's criminal code article 213.2 should not have been applied against them. Samutsevich's bandmates -- both of whom have young children -- should be released as soon as possible.