Russia Prime Minister Medvedev calls for Pussy Riot’s early release – though remains ‘disgusted’ by band

ingressimage_verdict2.jpg Photo: Still from TVrain

Medvedev, who was president for four years until May, appeared in remarks on Russian television and carried by Russian newswires to be trying to disassociate himself from the jail terms that were condemned as excessive by the West and rights groups at home, as well as by liberal Russians.

He is also the highest-ranking Russian official thus far to make a pronouncement in favor of overturning the band members’ jail sentences, and by doing so seems to be making a departure from the Kremlin line as well as a majority of ordinary Russians who feel the verdict was fair.

An appeal of the verdict is expected to begin on October 1.

As president, Medvedev styled himself as a liberal reformer, and though he handed the presidency back to Vladimir Putin, he has made it clear he wants to remain in politics and perhaps even return to the presidency one day.

bodytextimage_medvedevkhimkiblog.jpg Photo: Still from Medvedev's blog on Kremlin.ru

Medvedev’s disgust with court and band

Medvedev, who trained as a lawyer, said he did not want to take the place of the judge, but believed that suspended sentences would have been sufficient for the women. He said many Russians had found the Pussy Riot protest offensive and was at pains to emphasize he was expressing his personal view only and was not seeking to influence the case.

“I am sickened by what they did, and by their personal appearance, and all the hysterics that have accompanied all that has occurred. It disgusts me to even speak about it. That is my personal point of view” said Medvedev in remarks carried by Interfax news agency. He added the five months they had spent in pre-trial detention since March was punishment enough.

“The prolongation of their incarceration in the conditions of jail seems to me to be unproductive,” he said. “A suspended sentence, taking into account time they have already spent [in jail], would be entirely sufficient.”

‘Blasphemous’ verdict

On August 17, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, received two year jail sentences from a Moscow court on charges of “Hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for performing, with two other band mates, a “punk prayer” at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral , in which they implore the Virgin Mary to “get rid of Putin.”

The jailed women said their performance had aimed to highlight the Russian Orthodox Church leader’s support for Putin.

The three-hour reading of the verdict against them last month by Judge Marina Syrova singled out their “demonic dancing” during the performance and essentially added up to a conviction for blasphemy, court transcripts show.

How low can civil society go?

The case has been watched closely by Bellona as a litmus test on how far Russian human rights have been eroded by a host of new laws signed by President Vladimir Putin, particularly his restrictive new law on NGOs receiving funding from abroad. The law forces such NGOs to register as “foreign agents” with Russia’s Justice Ministry, and apply the label on all their publications, Bellona included.

Bellona’s Igor Kudrik said that Medvedev remarks show he “understands the Pussy Riot verdict is complete nonsense and feels bad about it professionally from the angle of Russian jurisprudence.”

“The court decision stinks of a medieval inquisition rather than one government by the rule of law,” said Kudrik.

Pussy Riot’s performance took place on February 21, and while they were detained briefly afterward, they were let go. Three of them were rearrested two weeks later after President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in March.

The two other members of the band are said to have fled the country  after Moscow police announced an all-points-bulletin to track Pussy Riot’s remaining members down for trial after the verdict.

Punishment fitting the crime?

It is unclear whether Medvedev’s comments in an arena where Putin clearly holds power indicates that a softening of the women’s sentences could be expected.

Mark Feigin, one of the band’s lead defense attorneys told Russian media he doubted Medvedev’s statement would lead to shorter sentences for the band members “because Medvedev does not have the authority. He’s not a politically influential figure in Russia’s authoritarian hierarchy”.

And Putin seems already to have extended what mercy he will.

The band members had originally faced up to seven years in prison, but Putin said during the trial that they should not be judged “too harshly” and prosecutors obliged immediately, reducing their sentencing request to three-year  – which Judge Syrova then further reduced to two.

In a television interview last week, Putin declined to comment on whether he believed the sentences were fitting, saying he was not interfering in the case.

While European governments, the US Department of State and a range of international rights organizations – including Amnesty International, who have named the women Prisoners of Conscience ­– registered their outrage, most ordinary Russians polled after the verdict felt Pussy Riot they got what the deserved. 

A survey conducted by Russian polling agency, the Public Opinion Foundation after the verdict found that 53 percent of Russians believed the two-year sentences were fair and 27 percent said they were unjust.

Yet, an earlier poll taken before a majority of Russians were made aware of Pussy Riot’s guerilla performance, a majority reported that the girls should only be fined or given community service.

The Levada Center, another polling agency in Russia suggested this staggering shift in attitude could be attributed to the fact that most Russians get their new via one of four state controlled TV networks that ran damning coverage of Pussy Riot’s actions.

“There should be no illusions about Putin being the evil suppressing a population that strives for democracy,” said Bellona’s Kudrik in earlier remarks about the case. “I am sure the appellate courts will set them free once today’s verdict is challenged by the lawyers – but again this trial is not only endemic for Putin’s regime, this case is endemic for Russia as a country.”

International comparisons

Getting an international fix on the divide about what constitutes an act of free speech in a church and would lead to long sentences in jail is, however, a more slippery topic than international support for Pussy Riot would suggest.

Recently, in Germany – whose government joined EU condemnations of the verdict – Pussy Riot supporters entered a Catholic Cathedral, held up a sign, and chanted slogans. They were arrested for disturbing the peace and disturbing a religious service. If convicted, they could face up to three years in prison under German law.

 In 1989, a group of American protestors entered Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to protest the Catholic Church’s opposition to condoms and AIDS education. Arrested, they faced fines of up to $400 or 90-day jail sentences for disturbing the peace. Most were given small fines and released.

This signals differing historical contexts: While Germany, since the Holocaust, harshly punishes actions construed as intolerant, America strives to maintain its purported founding principles of a wide distance between church and state.

Russian Orthodoxy was all but suffocated by 70 years of communism, and freedom of religion is a tenuous new liberty. But where the logic of a direct offence to the Orthodox Church itself slips is that a mere 7 percent of the Church of Christ the Savior is used for purely religious purposes. It is privately held and rented by the Orthodox Church – but also has concert venues and other open community facilities.

The unisex Russian Olympic team, for instance, was photographed standing in the church in the same exact spot that Pussy Riot was so reviled for breaching during their prosecution, as this section of the church is reserved only for the male priesthood.  It also hosts all manner of corporate affairs and other bashes for Moscow’s well to do.

The disco band Boney M has also played concerts at the cathedral. And though the members of the band profess to be Christian, their wild popularity in Russia has led to many an occasion of “demonic dancing.” 

Charles Digges