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Pussy Riot will be free; speech in Russia will not

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at his annual news conference in Moscow, 19 December 2013.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at his annual news conference in Moscow, 19 December 2013.

AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev

By Cathal Sheerin

"I feel pity for them, not because they are in prison, but because they started to engage in activities that are humiliating to women." President Vladimir Putin on Pussy Riot, 19 December 2013.

Whilst the amnesty granted to the two imprisoned members of Pussy Riot - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alekhina - is to be welcomed, we must view it for what it is: a political stunt by the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.

PEN International and other free expression groups have campaigned for the release of Tolokonnikova and Alekhina since February 2012, when they were arrested for performing a "punk prayer" at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow and charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred".

Although both women could be released as early as the New Year, we would do well to remember that this takes only three months off the two-year prison sentences both received for miming to a song in a cathedral.

At a press conference on the 19 December (the day after the amnesty was passed by the Duma), Putin showed little sympathy for the two women when he was asked whether he thought their sentences had been harsh:

"I feel pity for them, not because they are in prison, but because they started to engage in activities that were humiliating to women. They took part in a PR stunt and the court decided to punish them for other offences."

"This is not a revision of the court ruling by any means," he said. "The amnesty has nothing to do with Greenpeace or Pussy Riot. It was a decision taken by the Duma. We need to be humane coming to the anniversary of the Russian Constitution. The amnesty was initiated in order to turn the page."

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina will be being freed as part of a mass amnesty to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. Other prisoners to be released include the Greenpeace activists who were detained in September 2013, and a number of the so-called "Bolotnaya" protesters who were arrested following an anti-Putin protest in Moscow in May 2012.

However, this mass amnesty is really about serving two public relations goals:

1) To make President Putin - a man for whom image is all-important - look like a strong, merciful leader.

2) To try to distract attention from - and perhaps take some momentum out of - the huge wave of protest expected to hit Russia from within and without when the Sochi Winter Olympics finally arrive in February 2014.

We must not be lulled into believing that the mass release of thousands of prisoners signals a new dawn in Russia.

If you are in any doubt as to the way Russia is heading in terms of free expression and other rights, just look at what has been happening recently:
On 9 December, the decision was taken to close the state-owned news service RIA Novosti and amalgamate it into a new state-run news agency called Russia Today (not to be confused with the current TV station, Russia Today ).

Although this decision was ostensibly taken for economic reasons, it is clear that Putin wants a more conservative and more openly propagandistic news service that reflects the new ultra conservatism currently being promoted in Russia: whereas RIA Novosti sometimes ran stories that weren't entirely flattering to Putin or to Russia, the new agency will be headed by Dmitry Kiselev, a keen Kremlin supporter, and a man so homophobic that he urged gay men's hearts to be burned on their deaths, just to prevent them being used in transplant operations.

And let's not forget the raft of rights-crushing legislation passed in Russia since Putin returned to the presidency for the third time in May 2012. Three laws in particular stand out because of the strangle-hold they place on free expression:

  • In July 2012 defamation was re-criminalised. Having previously been de-criminalised in 2011 under former President Dmitry Medvedev, it was made a crime once again when Putin returned to the presidency. In practice, criminal defamation laws have often been exploited by public officials around the world to silence criticism and deter investigative reporting; the United Nations special rapporteur for free expression has called for all states to decriminalise defamation. This law provides cripplingly harsh fines of up to US$153,000 for violations and threatens to push small media outlets into self-censorship for fear of risking financial ruin.
  • In June 2013, the now-infamous gay "propaganda" law was passed. This law prohibits the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors," meaning that any activity that can be construed as promoting the non-heterosexual lifestyle, including the holding of LGBT rallies, or the "promotion of denial of traditional family values among minors," is now banned. Russian citizens violating this law face being fined; foreigners face deportation. Since the introduction of this law, LGBT groups have reported an increase in attacks on gay people and Russia's media watchdog has already targeted one newspaper, Molodoi Dalnevostochnik, for "promoting" homosexuality in its coverage of the firing of a gay school teacher.
  • Also in June 2013, the so-called "blasphemy" law was passed. This law criminalises "religious insult" and provides punishments of up to three years' imprisonment or a maximum fine of US$ 16,000 for violations. The law is widely seen as a heavy-handed attempt to deter stunts similar to the one carried out by the Pussy Riot.

So while you're cheering that Pussy Riot and others are free, try to remember that speech in Russia is not.

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