(Moscow) – The conviction of three members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot on August 17, 2012, is inappropriate and disproportionate, Human Rights Watch said today. The three women were convicted on charges of hate-motivated hooliganism and sentenced to two years in prison.
The three women have been in detention for over five months and should be released, Human Rights Watch said.
“The charges and verdict against the Pussy Riot band members distort both the facts and the law,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These women should never have been charged with a hate crime and should be released immediately.
Moscow’s Khamovnichesky District Court found 22-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23-year-old Maria Alyokhina, and 30-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich guilty on charges of hooliganism committed by a group of persons motivated by religious hatred, under article 213, part 2 of Russia’s criminal code.
The three women have been in pretrial custody since their arrest in March. On July 20 the court refused to release them before trial and extended the period of pretrial custody by six months.
Four members of the group performed what they call a “punk prayer” on February 21 in Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral. Dressed in brightly colored dresses and wearing balaclavas, they sneaked into the area in front of the iconostasis – a screen that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church – where the public is generally not supposed to enter.
They danced, jumped, and shouted some words to their song, “Virgin Mary, Get Putin Out.” The stunt lasted about a minute before they were forcibly removed from the premises, and caused no damage to church property.
The same day, a video widely shared on social media showed a montage of the stunt with the song spliced in. The song criticizes the Russian Orthodox Church’s alleged close relationship with the Kremlin and the personally close relationship of President Vladimir V. Putin with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The judge found in favor of the prosecution’s argument that the women’s actions were motivated by religious hatred and had caused grievous harm to Christian Orthodox believers. Prosecution witnesses included nine people who said they were profoundly offended by the stunt, including altar boys, security guards, and candle sellers.
Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich have said their actions in the Cathedral aimed at criticizing the close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, as well as the way in which the two institutions reinforce each other’s conservative approaches on such issues as gender equality and rights for gay people. The group was particularly critical of the Russian Patriarch Kirill for his alleged calls on Orthodox believers to vote for Putin in the March presidential election.
“It’s clear in this case that the women’s aim was to make a political statement, and it’s also clear that some found their actions offensive,” Williamson said. “But there is still a long way to go between an offensive political statement and a hate crime.”
To correctly balance the rights of free speech and political opinion with protection of the rights of others, only conduct likely to incite imminent violence, discrimination, or hostility against an individual or clearly defined group of people should be classified as a hate crime, Human Rights Watch said. It should also be clear that no other reasonable alternative preventive measures are available to respond to the conduct.
Although Human Rights Watch recognizes that abusive conduct may not be insulated from punishment simply because it may be accompanied by protected expression, the Russian authorities had other options for holding the band members accountable for their actions, including through articles of Russia’s code of administrative offenses.
This is not the first time Russian authorities have misused criminal legislation to stifle critical artistic expression, Human Rights Watch said. In 2010 a Moscow district court found the co-organizers of a controversial art exhibit, “Forbidden Art-2006,” at the Sakharov Museum in Moscow guilty of inciting religious hatred, which is considered an extremist offense, and fined them.
The verdict was handed down amid a broader crackdown against civil society after Putin’s election. In June and July, parliament adopted a raft of lawsputting new restrictions on certain nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding, on public demonstrations, and on the Internet.
After a winter of unprecedented, peaceful opposition protests, demonstrators whom the authorities claim were involved in a scuffle with police during a mass demonstration in May have been arrested and are being charged with crimes that are disproportionate to their alleged actions. Police have conducted searches of the homes of opposition leaders that seemed intended to intimidate them.
In June, lawyers for the activists arrested after the mass demonstration filed complaints to the European Court of Human Rights against procedural violations during the investigation that violated their rights as defendants, including the court’s decision to take them into custody. The European Court registered the complaints in July.
“The case against the Pussy Riot band members seems aimed not at protecting public order and security but at setting boundaries for political criticism,” Williamson said.