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Pussy Riot trial: What does it say about Russia?


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Whatever the eventual verdict in the trial of the punk band Pussy Riot, they have served a great purpose in highlighting the ongoing corruption of the Russian judiciary and President Putin.

Three members of the band were arrested in February after playing their ‘punk prayer’, Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Out at an Orthodox Church in Moscow. They were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and have been held in prison for six months, with all their requests for bail denied. The trio could face up to seven years in jail if convicted.

One of Pussy Riot’s members who has not been detained, nicknamed Terminator, claims the church protest was “definitely not an anti-religious act” but a “political performance” against Putin’s campaign for the presidential elections in March.

Their show was intended as a protest, but the most powerful man in Eastern Europe is not very receptive to criticism. Notorious for his hard line on dissent, Putin has been accused of exerting influence over both the Orthodox Church and the courts to ensure the band is punished for their opposition.

Natalia Antonova, deputy editor of The Moscow News, says: “The courts are there to blindly, brutally enforce the social hierarchy... not to get to the bottom of controversial criminal cases.”

Few would reasonably believe Putin’s statement that the courts should be merciful towards Pussy Riot. Leniency would make Putin seem weak, and he knows it.

Pussy Riot’s supporters have no doubts about Putin’s motives and the fairness of the trial. “It’s personally Putin and his closest assistants basically leading this case”, says Pyotr Verzilov, husband of Nadia Tolokonnikova, one of the jailed members.

The band’s lawyers have been equally critical of the process; Violetta Volkova claims the trio are being tortured, in a trial “worse than [any in] the Soviet era”.

Stalin’s USSR was infamous for its show trials, which made a mockery of justice. This case has shown that Russia has not come as far as many would hope.

Protests have been led by Amnesty International and have seen a host of celebrities pledge their support. Madonna was labelled a “slut” by a senior Russian official after voicing her support for Pussy Riot at a recent Moscow gig.

Putin commands huge loyalty though, and the band’s choice of venue for their performance has angered a sizeable portion of the Russian public. “It was blasphemy. Russia is the last Orthodox power in the world and they need to go to prison”, said one Putin supporter.

“They should be given forced labour”, popular priest Sergei Rybko stated.

The band faces appalling living conditions, sit in front of a judiciary that can in no sense be described as either free or impartial, and may well be sentenced to several years in prison. Their plight has rightly been highlighted by organisations such as Amnesty and has made people take greater interest in the state of Russian ‘democracy’.

In Putin’s Russia, dissent isn’t a legitimate part of democracy. This ordeal surrounding Pussy Riot shows his willingness to exploit and exert his influence to ensure his perpetual strength in the political arena.

All genuine defenders of democracy and freedom of speech should support Pussy Riot, regardless of their music or religious affiliations. One of the band’s lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, is himself a “committed Orthodox Christian”.

Even if the judiciary makes the scandalous decision to convict Pussy Riot’s members on Friday, the band can take hope from their torment. Terminator says “we want Russia to be a better place” - which is a lot more than can be said for their President.

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