Amnesty International have called for the immediate and unconditional release of three young women arrested by the Russian authorities after their punk group “Pussy Riot” staged a protest song in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February.
Several “Pussy Riot” members, with their faces covered in balaclavas, sang a protest song entitled Virgin Mary, Redeem us of Putin in the cathedral on 21 February.
In the song, the band criticise the dedication and support shown by some representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The song also calls on the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and banish Putin.
The Russian authorities subsequently arrested Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova on 4 March, and Ekaterina Samusevich on 15 March, claiming they were the masked singers. Although the three women admit to being members of the larger “Pussy Riot” group, they deny any involvement in the protest in the cathedral.
The three women, who are currently in pre-trial detention until 25 April, have been charged with “hooliganism” under the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (Article 213), a charge which carries a maximum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment.
Amnesty insists that even if the three arrested women did take part in the protest, the severity of Russian authorities’ response - detention on the serious criminal charge of hooliganism - would not be a justifiable response to the peaceful - if, to some, offensive - expression of their political beliefs, and they would therefore be prisoners of conscience.
The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that freedom of expression applies not only to inoffensive ideas, “but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population”.
Amnesty insist that even if the action was calculated to shock and was known to be likely to cause offence, the activists left the cathedral when requested to do so and caused no damage. The entire incident lasted only a few minutes and caused only minimal disruption to those using the cathedral.
Amnesty believes the broader political context surrounding the anti-Putin protests in February - and the anti-clerical, anti-Putin content of the activists’ message - have clearly and unlawfully been taken into account in the charges brought against them.
Although the Russian Orthodox Church initially called for mercy for the protestors, subsequent statements by church representatives have called for harsh punishment and for the women to be prosecuted for inciting hatred on grounds of religion. The women’s relatives have reportedly also received anonymous death threats.
Amnesty called on the Russian authorities to drop the charges of hooliganism against Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samusevich, and release them immediately and unconditionally.