Constellation Pussy Riot Shines in Russia’s Universe of Extremism

By Innokenty Grekov

The world is now witnessing the second painful week of the politically motivated and media-dominating trial of three members of Pussy Riot who performed an anti-Putin “punk prayer” at Moscow’s Christ the Savior cathedral in February. The case is the most obvious example of how Russia uses extremism, incitement, and hostility/hatred statutes to prosecute dissenting civic activists, artists, religious believers, bloggers, and independent media outlets.

Russia’s approach to addressing hate crimes through the prism of extremism has led to an array of misuses against nonviolent dissenting voices including journalists, activists, independent media and religious organizations. There are too many examples of these abusive practices. Maxim Efimov, a blogger in Karelia, has faced erroneous extremism charges and even hospitalization for his comments critical of the Russian Orthodox Church and is now seeking asylum in Estonia. Art Group Voina has fought numerous legal battles for allegedly extremist offenses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and Muslims are facing religious persecution all over Russia—in the most recent episode in the Chuvash Republic ten Jehovah’s Witnesses believers have been charged under extremism statues for proselytizing and distributing religious texts. The list goes on.

The three women from Pussy Riot are charged under article 213 (part 2) with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.” Although not as “heavy” as extremism, hooliganism statutes are a part of Russia’s criminal code and can lead to substantial penalties. For example, if Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich are convicted, they could spend up to 7 years in jail. Hooliganism statues are often used to prosecute violent hate crimes, including those committed by neo-Nazi skinheads. Their heinous racist murders have been previously referred to as “hooligans” by state authorities and are the origin for the statute’s title.

The Pussy Riot trial follows a model we’ve seen in proceedings for extremism cases. Two years ago, Yury Samodurov, a human rights activist, and Andrey Erofeev, a museum curator, faced criminal prosecution for organizing an exhibition entitled “Forbidden Art 2006” at the Andrei Sakharov Museum. The state persecutor in that case was none other than Alexander Nikiforov, who is now trying to convict Pussy Riot applying similar techniques in trying to establish how hurtful, insulting, and illegal the nonviolent “punk prayer” was to Russia’s millions of religious believers. While Nikiforov failed to put the curators behind bars, this time the prosecution is already “ahead” of schedule. The Pussy Riot girls have spent five months in pretrial detention while investigators put together some three thousand pages of “evidence” against the band.

To help make the case against Pussy Riot, an “independent expertise” was carried out by three professors who scrutinized a video clip of the “punk prayer” through “psychological, linguistic, and judicial-linguistic” lenses. They concluded that the accused had indeed conspired to violate public norms and showed considerable contempt for the society overall and religious believers in particular, and that their motive was religious hatred. Incidentally, all three “experts” enlisted by the prosecution have a long history of participation in other sham trials that resulted in violations of freedom of expression, association, and religion. The experts’ connection to previous high-profile extremism cases is yet another sign that Pussy Riot’s case occupies a marquee position in the list of erroneous prosecutions in which Russia’s extremism laws are misused by the government.

Undoubtedly, this “universe” of persecution will one day explode unless the world continues to highlight these cases for what they are—attempts to silence dissent.

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Published on August 7, 2012

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