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Pussy Riot: Our arrest signals start of repression campaign to spread fear

Published time: July 30, 2012 11:58
Edited time: July 31, 2012 13:16

Members of the all-girl punk band "Pussy Riot" Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L), Maria Alyokhina (R) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (C), sit behind bars during a court hearing in Moscow on July 30, 2012. (AFP Photo/Andrey Smirnov)

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Three members of the punk band Pussy Riot, who performed an anti-Putin song in Russia’s main cathedral, have pleaded not guilty to "abusive actions motivated by religious hatred", but concede what they did was an ethical mistake.

As the trial commenced in Moscow, the performers said it marked the launch of a broader repressive campaign.

I am taking it as the start of a repressive authoritarian campaign which aims to hamper the public’s political activity and build a sense of fear among political activists,” Ekaterina Samutsevich, one of the group’s members, said in a statement in court.

Charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, 29, may each face up to seven years in prison if convicted.

The first day of proceedings came to a close after a ten-hour marathon. As the three girls made their statements, the prosecutors read out the charges.

The defense motioned to remove the judge on the grounds she was biased – but the motion was rejected. Most appeals filed by the Pussy Riot's lawyers on Monday met no benevolence, unlike the prosecutors' suggestions. In one of the instances, the use of photo and video cameras during the trial was banned. The decision left only Twitter and similar resources as the only media to report the proceedings.

The band’s defense appealed to the court to compel the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, testify in court “to explain canonical issues of the Russian Orthodox Church.” The appeal was rejected.

The court then listened to three witnesses for the prosecution – two members of the Christ the Savor Cathedral staff and a parishioner.

The witnesses accused the girls of “satanic dances” in a sacred place and said this caused them pain and heartache. Whether the latter was a figure of speech remained unclear as the judge rejected most questions put forward by the defense. However, none of the three witnesses wanted any financial compensation for their suffering.

I don’t need their money. It smells bad and my income suits me anyway,” a parishioner named Istomin told the judge.

On Tuesday morning the court will hear 16 more prosecution witnesses.

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A participant in an action in support of the Pussy Riot outside Moscow′s Khamovniki Court. The poster reads: "Judge, stop the madness, free Pussy Riot!"  (RIA Novosti/Vitaliy Belousov)
A participant in an action in support of the Pussy Riot outside Moscow's Khamovniki Court. The poster reads: "Judge, stop the madness, free Pussy Riot!" (RIA Novosti/Vitaliy Belousov)

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On Monday, all three members of the band refused to plead guilty to the charges set against them, on the grounds that doing so would go against their beliefs.

We refuse to admit guilt,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova stressed in the statement as the trial began. She said this position had remained unchanged, though the prosecution had repeatedly offered a plea bargain: an admission of guilt would soften pre-trial restrictions. The three performers have spent five months in custody.

The women insisted their action was not a crime according to Russian law. At the same time, they acknowledged that bringing a performance to a cathedral was an “ethical mistake”, since they did not anticipate that their actions would be offensive.

We are not enemies to Christians. If our passion insulted anyone, we regret it and say sorry,” stated Tolokonnikova, adding the song “Virgin Mary, banish Putin” was aimed to denounce Patriarch Kirill, who allegedly called on the parish to vote for Putin in the upcoming presidential elections.

No blasphemous words were uttered during the performance in the cathedral, Tolokonnikova also noted, though the prosecution states otherwise.

Maria Alyokhina described the incident as an administrative crime and all the three insisted this was a political action.

The girls said they were unaware of the consequences since all their previous performances, even those played on Red Square and near a pre-trial detention facility, had been met with “good sense of humor and irony.”

The Moscow court consistently refused all the defendants’ appeals, including a call to send the case back to the Prosecutor Office on the basis that there was not enough evidence.

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The poster on the right reads: "Coalition for Morals"; while the placard in the middle addresses the judge: "Where′s your honor, Your Honor?" RIA Novosti/Vitaliy Belousov
The poster on the right reads: "Coalition for Morals"; while the placard in the middle addresses the judge: "Where's your honor, Your Honor?" RIA Novosti/Vitaliy Belousov

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The Prosecutor General’s Office insists that the actions of Pussy Riot “have inflicted considerable damage to the sacred values of Christian ministering” and “encroached on the sanctity of ecclesiastical mystery” which became a “blasphemous assault on the secular foundations of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The prosecutor’s office has accused the band of “previous concert hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and “exercising provocative and abusive actions in a religious facility, thus drawing the attention of a broad spectrum of believers.”

Several people claiming grievances gave evidence at the trial. They say the scandalous action has not only insulted them, but also brought severe suffering and caused health issues. A guard at the Cathedral has been suffering from insomnia as a result, his lawyer revealed to Russia’s News Service on Monday.

His wound cannot be measured by bruises, his heart is bleeding,” shared the lawyer. The Rioters’ behavior was rude as they refused to leave and dropped their cloaks at the spot where the priest administers the Lord’s Supper to the parish. The performance contained a “satanic element, which is not evident to non-religious people, but could be well understood by the Church supporters,” the lawyer continued.

What kind of administrative punishment are they talking about?” the lawyer cocludes insisting the girls' action amounts to the hooliganism article on the Criminal Code.

Testifying in court, another member of the Cathedral staff has asked the judge for a punishment which would make the three women “afraid” of ever repeating such a thing.

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Participants in an action in support of the members of the Pussy Riot punk band outside Moscow′s Khamovniki Court. The poster reads: "Judge, stop the madness, free Pussy Riot!" (RIA Novosti/Vitaliy Belousov)
Participants in an action in support of the members of the Pussy Riot punk band outside Moscow's Khamovniki Court. The poster reads: "Judge, stop the madness, free Pussy Riot!" (RIA Novosti/Vitaliy Belousov)

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­In the morning, the trial gathered two small demonstrations, both in support of the punk group and against.

Pussy Riot’s supporters tote placards such as “This is not a court trial; this is a lynching”, but were largely outnumbered by the flocks of journalists who started arriving two hours before the trial kicked off.

The activists were soon opposed by two dozen people with two banners demanding the judge support the prosecution.

Read more on the debate surrounding the process over Pussy Riot

The trial began at noon and progressed to studying the prosecutors’ evidence, which will include listening to dozens of witnesses for the prosecution.

The defense will provide their evidence next. But Pussy Riot’s lawyers already accuse the judge of bias in the prosecution’s favor and say this is just a formal trial as the verdict is already there. The prosecutors, in return, say the defense is deliberately drawing out the process.

The three accused women will testify at the very end.

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