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Free 'Pussy Riot'!

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In early March, three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were arrested for protesting in the Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. They performed their "punk prayer," which in its chorus asked "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away," which lasted for less than a minute before guards removed the women from the Church. The three members have been charged with "hooliganism" and if convicted face up to seven years in jail.

Heavily inspired by the American Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, Pussy Riot uses art and music to promote their feminist anti-authoritarian message. Formed this past September, the group currently consists of 10 members who wear colorful "balaclavas," (knit caps with cut outs for the eyes and mouth) to protect their anonymity. They use flash mobs and take over public spaces, performing brash political songs that challenge Putin, the state and the role of Russian Orthodox Church in politics. While their methods may be unconventional and controversial, for example the group performed a song called "Putin Has Pissed Himself" at the Red Square this past January, it is this format which has helped them spread their message that democratic, educational and social change is needed in Russia.

The demonstration that these alleged Pussy Riot members were arrested for was held at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, a Cathedral that for many Russians represents the rebirth of the Russian Orthodox church after years of religious persecution by the Soviet Union. Stalin tore down the Cathedral in 1931 to make way for the Palace of the Soviets, a grand project that was never realized. The Cathedral was rebuilt in 2000 after the fall of the Soviet Union; becoming a sacred place for the Russian Orthodox. The fact that Pussy Riot used this space for their protest has been viewed as a sacrilege by many members of the church. Kirill, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that "the devil laughed at us" when Pussy Riot performed at the Cathedral and has condemned those within the Orthodox Church who have asked for leniency for the three jailed members. But Pussy Riot maintains that their demonstration was not an act against the Church, but a protest against the church's close ties to the new authoritarian government and specifically Patriarch Kirill's vocal support of Putin.

President Putin, who won this March's presidential election by 64 percent, has been accused by many Russian protesters of puppeteering the Russian government for over a decade and winning this past election, detractors claim, fraudulently. Many believe Russia's recent elections have been rigged by the majority party, United Russia, who ran Putin for president. In the months before the presidential elections, tens of thousands of protesters spoke out against Putin. Now that Putin has reclaimed the presidency, he seems determined to crush dissent.

In the past several months Russia has appeared to be chipping away at both rights for protesters and the way that the police handle political demonstrations. In early March, nearly 500 activists peacefully protesting Putin's Presidential win were detained in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And this past week both the lower and upper houses of Parliament have passed a bill that increases fines for breaking protest violations from the previous maximum of 5,000 rubles ($155) to a staggering 300,000 rubles ($9,297) for participants and 600,000 rubles ($18,594) for organizers. The legislation was signed by Putin last Friday, which put the law in effect in time for this week's protests scheduled by those opposed to Putin, including yesterday's 100,000 person protest in Moscow. It is in this political climate that these three alleged Pussy Riot members have been arrested, detained and now seek justice. Many fear the disproportionate response to their protest by Russian authorities is meant as a warning to others who wish to speak out against Putin.

In the past few months these three feminists from an anonymous group have become Russian symbols for government resistance. Free Pussy Riot demonstrations have sprung up throughout Europe and the United States. Amnesty International has named them prisoners of conscience. But with all of the interest in this case it is important to remember that it is about three jailed women, two of which are mothers of small children, who are facing a long jail term if convicted. Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samucevich's pre-trial jail time, they have been detained since March, has been extended until their June 24th trial date. The defendants have reported unlawful 24-hour surveillance and threats from investigators to terminate their parental rights. Russia has a conviction rate of approximately 99 percent; a fair trial for the alleged Pussy Riot members looks bleak. Despite the odds against Pussy Riot's acquittal, fighting for their freedom, and a free democratic Russian state, must continue.