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Why Pussy Riot Matters

Wednesday morning brought news that one of the three members of Pussy Riot, the jailed Russian punk band, will go free, while two others -- both mothers of young children -- will spend two years in a penal colony. The fate of Pussy Riot has captivated the media, pundits and the public as has no other Russian human rights case in recent memory.

Those of us old enough to remember the names Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Sharansky remember them as symbols of hope and freedom against a repressive regime. After the Soviet Union fell twenty years ago, the notion of dissidents in Russia seemed to wash away into the annals of history.

Tragically, what many thought was a relic of a different era is still alive in Moscow, with the first internationally celebrated dissidents in post-Soviet Russia.

Three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot were arrested earlier this year for protesting the Putin Administration at a performance inside a church. They ignited a global sensation, not only because they were imprisoned for political speech within a "free" nation but also because they expressed views through the prism of their artistry.

With a hearing on the case scheduled for this week, Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of jailed band member Nadia Tolokonnikova, visited the United States at the end of September with his four-year-old daughter, Gera, and members of his legal team.

Verzilov met with Members of Congress, activists and journalists to press the case. He and his daughter were covered by mainstays CNN and the Washington Post but also by MTV, and a hastily arranged speech at NYU drew an overflow crowd of hundreds. He and his imprisoned wife were honored by Yoko Ono in New York City, who awarded the group the LennonOno Prize for Peace.

Amnesty has worked directly on behalf of more than 40,000 prisoners of conscience since its founding over fifty years ago. The imprisoned Pussy Riot members now join their ranks.

The singular attention being paid to Pussy Riot, which was front-page news when the group's two-year sentence was handed down in late August, is unique. In a world where human rights causes compete for attention, Pussy Riot managed to break through, winning followers, coverage and attention beyond the wildest dreams of its members.

Observers have chalked up Pussy Riot's prominence to the group's provocative name and the band members' adroit use of historical images with a '90s era Riot Grrl style. Critics have chalked up the group's prominence to Western governments trying to undermine Putin.

The case has also tapped a rich vein in the artistic movement. Support from Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, Ono and dozens of other music industry legends was born from immediate artist-to-artist identification.

The voices across the globe demanding the release of Pussy Riot have been echoed by international figures like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, the foreign policy chief of the European Union and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, in part because the human rights situation in Russia is getting worse, not better.

For years, under Putin, the Russian regime has imposed onerous bureaucratic and financial requirements on civil society organizations. The government has failed to address, and -- some allege -- been behind a terrifying pattern where investigative journalists and human rights activists are turning up dead.

Last month, the Putin government kicked out the United States Agency for International Development, pulling the rug out from several vital civic and human rights groups that depended on its funding. Less visibly, the government also recently moved to broaden its laws on treason, establishing a framework that could be used to charge human rights defenders with treason against the state. At the same time, a domestic opposition movement is stirring, with more public protests occurring in the country during the last year than in the previous decade combined.

The activists of Pussy Riot are anything but accidental. Pussy Riot's prominence has forced the Putin government to take notice. Putin himself has spoken out repeatedly on the case, and Dmitry Medvedev, formerly the country's president and a Putin protégé, went so far as to call for the band's release.

The biggest question is whether Pussy Riot and its demand for political, media and creative freedom, will ignite the same passions at home in Russia as they have around the world. If that happens, the millions worldwide who have been captivated and activated by the Pussy Riot case may indeed be on the verge of something truly momentous.

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