The Pussy Riot case is about fundamental human rights

Kerry McCarthy

As predicted the trial in Moscow of three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot has ended in a guilty verdict and a two year jail sentence. Only 1% of trials in Russia end in an acquittal and this was never going to be one of them.

The trial had focused heavily on evidence from the prosecution and the victims (i.e. those had witnessed the performance in the church or seen footage of it later). Defence lawyers complained that the judge frequently halted their attempts to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, and they were not allowed to call their own expert witnesses to challenge the prosecution case. The women were charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, under an ancient law, and had little opportunity to develop their counter-argument that their motivation was political, not an attack on anyone’s religious beliefs. Indeed, the prosecution lawyer asserted in his summing-up that the ‘punk prayer’ they performed (or 40 seconds of it, before they were asked to leave) was not political as no politicians’ names were mentioned in it. The title of the song? “Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Out”.

As we waited for the verdict to come in yesterday there were events in cities around the world to show support for the three women. In Moscow Pussy Riot style balaclavas mysteriously appeared on all the statues, and outside the court several thousand people gathered. There were reports that five police vans were filled with arrested protestors, including the former world chess champion turned political activist Garry Kasparov.

In the UK there was a protest outside the Russian embassy in London. I was at the Royal Court Theatre in London, watching three actresses perform the closing statements made by Nadya, Masha and Katya on the last day of their trial. (Somewhat surreally, Dean Friedman, known primarily in the UK for his 1978 hit ‘Lucky Stars’ organised, with a bit of help from Twitter, a simultaneous reading up at the Edinburgh Festival). An excellent translation by Sasha Dugdale, which can be found here, did absolute justice to the women’s words, which were powerful, thoughtful and showed a determination not to be cowed by their experience but to continue speaking out.

Russia is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and the defence lawyers have said that they will pursue the case in the European Court of Human Rights. (A Russian court today also, in a crackdown on gay rights activists, banned Pride from taking place in Russia for the next century. This is despite having been found in breach of the ECHR when it banned Pride in Moscow in 2006, 2007 and 2008).

We wait to see what steps the lawyers will take and what the international reaction to the verdict and sentence will be. Some may doubt the power of international support, but it is worth noting what Masha had to say in her closing statement:

“We are innocent – the whole world is saying it. The whole world says it at concerts; the whole world says it on the internet and in the press. In parliaments they say it. The British Prime Minister did not greet our President with a speech about the Olympics. He asked why three innocent girls were in prison. How shameful.”

Pressure from the international community, whether it be politicians, celebrities or people signing the petitions organised by Amnesty, may not have secured the outcome many people wanted to see. But we need to keep up the fight. This is about more than just the plight of three young women facing a jail sentence. It is about fundamental human rights that people have fought for, and hold dear. We need to show that we as the Labour Party are prepared to defend them.

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