Pussy RiotA fiction writer from the Golden Age of Russian literature could never have dreamed up a scenario as absurd and a story as far-fetched as the persecution of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, found guilty on Friday (17 August) by a Russian court and sentenced to two years in prison.

As if this theater of the absurd wasn't enough, the Putin government raised the stakes when, outside the courthouse this morning, police beat and arrested Russian democracy activist (and HRF chairman) Garry Kasparov. He was freed hours later and is now under investigation for “biting” a police officer.

Those of us who attempt to keep human rights in the forefront of culture and of the public conversation can seldom find a greater gift than this perfect story. In this instance, it reveals the tyrannical nature of Vladimir Putin's neo-czarist regime.

Pussy Riot is a feminist punk rock group made up of 10 women who wear brightly colored balaclavas, tights, and short skirts. The group was formed in 2011 in response to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to run for president in his ongoing bid to remain de facto leader of Russia. The band campaigns for individual rights, democracy, and reform of the Russian justice system.

On Feb. 21, 2012, Pussy Riot performed a “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Their prayer involved a song asking the Virgin Mary to “drive away Putin,” complete with highly critical and profane language. They chose a very meaningful venue:  the Russian Orthodox Church, which had openly endorsed Putin. The Pussy Rioters were driven out of the church after less than one minute.  They later edited and posted a video of their performance online.

On March 3, 2012, three members of the group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich—Nadia, Masha, and Katya—were arrested and charged with the crime of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” They have been in jail ever since.

The 10 witnesses—security guards, a candle-keeper, and a sacristan—said they suffered “moral damage” and are thus considered victims of the prayer, under the Russian Criminal Code. The lawyers who represent one of the security guards, Vladimir Potan’kin, said that their client was so mentally injured that he now has sleeping problems. Furthermore, in a twist not even worthy of a third-rate paperback, they stated that the Pussy Rioters are connected at the highest level to Satan himself.

The nature of the debate about freedom of speech, religious freedom, and political expression is one that is often misconstrued when that speech is profoundly offensive, crude, vulgar, or even malicious. “Nice” speech seldom requires defense.  It is that which causes offense, whether or not it is intended, which must be protected if a society is to remain free. Deny freedom of expression to one and you effectively deny it to all.  In those rare instances where restrictions on speech are permissible, they must be relevant, necessary, and pursuant to legitimate democratic aims—usually based on time, place, and manner, not on content. Had the Pussy Riot band interrupted a religious ceremony or had they been making loud noises at 4 a.m. in a quiet neighborhood, there would be grounds for restricting their actions. However, the prosecution of Pussy Riot meets none of these conditions.

Parody, irony, and humor are some of the most powerful weapons against established authority, especially the despotic kind. It is why Socrates was sentenced to death; it is why Voltaire’s criticism of the French absolutist monarchy was so disruptive that he was exiled from Paris; it is why Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, who hypocritically just granted asylum to Julian Assange, sued a journalist and newspaper for $42 million for a column that made fun of him as a tyrant; it is why Hugo Chavez in Venezuela extended the contempt laws to make it a crime to disrespect him, leading to investigations of cartoonists; it is why Manal Al- Sharif fears for her life in Saudi Arabia for driving a car and challenging the ban on female drivers; it is why Ai Weiwei is hit with trumped up tax-evasion charges after mocking China’s dictatorship, and why Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest by the Burmese military junta until just recently.  The despotic mind is utterly undone and utterly defenseless in the face of creative dissent.

Putin understands what Havel meant when he said “I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than 10 military divisions.” In Russia, a simple punk prayer has the government trembling.  What Putin has failed to realize is that his intolerance for dissent will make matters much worse for his regime.

The very term “Pussy Riot” has now entered the pop culture lexicon to the point that Madonna, Bjork, Sting, and Paul McCartney, among dozens of artists, have all declared public support for the band. Free Pussy riot concerts are being held in 48 cities around the world today.

As “Nadia” so eloquently and accurately observed in her closing statement:

“By and large, the three members of Pussy Riot are not the ones on trial here. If we were, this event would hardly be so significant. This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation... Despite the fact that we are physically here, we are freer than everyone sitting across from us on the side of the prosecution. We can say anything we want and we say everything we want... So, open all the doors, tear off your epaulets; Come, taste freedom with us.”

Read the original article in Forbes.

by Thor Halvorssen and Pedro Pizano.

(Photo © DR)

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