Amnesty International has urged the Russian authorities to release three young women detained after an anti-Putin protest by the punk group Pussy Riot at Moscow’s largest cathedral.
“Amnesty International calls for the immediate and unconditional release of three young women arrested by the Russian authorities as members of the punk group Pussy Riot,” the human rights organization said on its website.
“Even if the three arrested women did take part in the protest, the severity of the response of the Russian authorities… would not be a justifiable response,’ the statement issued late on Tuesday read. “They would therefore be prisoners of conscience.”
Five members of the group, clad in bright balaclavas, knelt and crossed themselves as they sang an acapella version of a song entitled “Holy Sh*t” at the downtown Moscow Christ the Savior Cathedral, which hosts Orthodox Christmas services attended by Russian leaders. The lyrics included lines such as “Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin, chase Putin out!” The protest came amid unprecedented mass demonstrations against Putin’s rule.
“The broader political context surrounding the anti-Putin protests at the time – and the anticlerical, anti-Putin content of the activists’ message – have clearly and unlawfully been taken into account in the charges that have been brought against them,” Amnesty said.
But Orthodox Church spokesman Vladimir Vigilyansky told RIA Novosti the decision was an “insult to those genuine prisoners of conscience who have suffered under totalitarian regimes such as China, Iran, the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany.”
He also accused Amnesty of fulfilling an “anti-Russian, anti-Putin and anti-Church order” as part of an “international political struggle.”
Suspects Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were detained in early and mid-March and face up to seven years in jail on hooliganism charges. They have been remanded in custody until their trial later this month. All the suspects admit being part of the Pussy Riot collective, but deny taking part in the cathedral performance. Both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have small children.
Some 10,000 people attended a rally condemning the group's action in the south Russian city of Krasnodar on Sunday, according to police. Pussy Riot supporters held a series of pickets outside Moscow's central police station last month.
Pussy Riot said the performance was a response to Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill’s “support” for President-elect Vladimir Putin in the run-up to his landslide March 4 election victory and accused him of “believing in Putin,” rather than God. Putin’s press secretary has said the president-elect reacted “negatively” when told of the group’s protest.
But Vigilyansky denied that the patriarch had offered his support for Putin prior to the presidential vote. The patriarch thanked Putin at a televised meeting in early February for his “huge role” in helping Russia survive the economic and social uncertainties of the 1990s.
“He was just saying obvious things,” Vigilyansky said. “He did not call on anyone to vote for Putin."
Vigilyansky's comments come after the Orthodox Church's Supreme Council said in a statement on Tuesday that it was under attack from unspecified "anti-Russian forces."
The Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a dramatic rise in influence since the collapse of the atheist Soviet Union. But it has faced mounting criticism from opposition supporters over its deepening ties with Russia's leaders.
Pussy Riot’s lawyer welcomed Amnesty’s decision.
“I’m not sure that it will have any influence on the court, but it’s important that the political element of the case has been recognized by Amnesty,” Nikolai Polozov told RIA Novosti. “This will take the discussion of the case to a new level.”
He also said he would visit his clients later this evening and that he hoped the news would “raise their spirits.”
The most recent Russian to be named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International was Left Front opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov in August of last year. Udaltsov has been repeatedly detained on protest-related charges. Jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev were conferred the status in May 2011 after facing a new set of what Amnesty said were “politically motivated” economic charges.
The head of Amnesty International’s Russian branch, Sergei Nikitin, called the decision to recognize the Pussy Riot suspects as prisoners of conscience “a signal to Russian society.”
He also said that while “no one ever admits to it officially, lawyers say that when one of their clients is recognized as a prisoner of conscience, this makes a big impression on all participants at court proceedings.”
A number of religious figures have urged leniency for the suspects, including Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who oversees relations between the society and the Orthodox Church.
But Patriarch Kirill hit out at those who he said seek to "justify and downplay this sacrilege" in an address to believers in March. "My heart breaks from bitterness that amongst these people there are those who call themselves Orthodox."
Pussy Riot first hit the headlines in January, when they raced through a musical diatribe against Putin on a snowy Red Square, calling for “Revolt in Russia!” and chanting “Putin’s got scared” before being detained by police.