As Russia prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, PEN International, the global association of writers, is launching a worldwide campaign - Out in the Cold - to highlight the draconian restrictions placed on free expression in the country since the return of President Vladimir Putin to office in May 2012.
Last month, President Putin granted an amnesty to 2,000 prisoners. Among them were the Arctic 30 environmental protestors, the "Bolotnaya Three" – who were detained during the protest against Vladimir Putin's rule in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square in 2012 - and the two members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, both of whom were serving two-year prison sentences for performing a "punk prayer" at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow in February 2012. However, the amnesty is widely considered to be part of a politically motivated move to soothe criticism ahead of the Sochi Games during which a huge wave of protest is expected in Russia and beyond in response to Putin's increasingly repressive approach to freedom of expression.
"Amnesties are a great old fashioned pressure release valve used by the authorities everywhere. They are fine so long as they last. But what matters in a fair society are just laws. With just laws you don't need amnesties," said PEN International President, John Ralston Saul.
Despite the welcome release of prisoners who should never have been arrested in the first place, PEN International is increasingly concerned that punitive new laws such as the "blasphemy" law, the gay "propaganda" law which restricts the "promotion of a gay lifestyle to minors" and the recent re-criminalization of the defamation law are part of a regressive crackdown on freedom of expression in the country. These laws are severely curtailing free speech in Russia; penalties include cripplingly harsh fines and disproportionate prison terms.
"PEN Centres around the world celebrate the spirit of human endeavour that the Olympics embody," said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN's Writers in Prison Committee. "But the concurrent crackdowns on the freedoms of Russian people are a mockery of that spirit. Those laws attack the fundamental rights of everyone in Russia."
As the world turns its attention to the southern city of Sochi in Russia, PEN International's Out in the Cold campaign asks its members and supporters from around the world to take action, calling for the repeal of these anti-free expression laws and urging the authorities of the Russian Federation to fully respect the fundamental right to freedom of expression.