Skip to main content

Pussy Riot and Russia's surreal 'justice'

By Rachel Denber, Special to CNN
updated 4:07 PM EDT, Fri August 17, 2012
Members of the all-girl punk band 'Pussy Riot' sit in a glass-walled cage after being sentenced in Moscow on Friday.
Members of the all-girl punk band 'Pussy Riot' sit in a glass-walled cage after being sentenced in Moscow on Friday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rachel Denber: no on should lose liberty for dancing on an altar to make a political statement
  • She says guilty verdict on Pussy Riot shows Russia's unfair justice system, oppressive state
  • She says: Modern Russia slippery on human rights; other nations mistakenly give it a pass
  • Denber: Verdict is tip of iceberg of Russia oppression; world community must speak out

Editor's note: Rachel Denber is deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Moscow (CNN) -- There is no basic human right to barge into a church to make a political statement, jump around near the altar, and shout obscenities. But there is most certainly the right not to lose your liberty for doing so, even if the act is offensive.

But that is exactly what happened Friday. A court in Moscow sentenced the three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison.

In my two decades monitoring human rights in Russia I've never seen anything like the Pussy Riot case -- the media attention, the outpouring of public support, the celebrity statements for the detained and criminally charged punk band members.

The image of three young women facing down an inexorable system of unfair justice and an oppressive state has crystallized for many in the West what is wrong with human rights in Russia. To be sure, it is deeply troubling.

For me, even more shocking were the images of Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer, lying on the sidewalk with the back of his head blown off in 2009, or the body of tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in 2009 after he blew the whistle on a massive government extortion scheme.

Rachel Denber
Rachel Denber

The Pussy Riot case shines a much needed, if highly disturbing, spotlight on the issue of freedom of expression in post-Soviet Russia

On February 21, four members of the group performed what they call a "punk prayer" in Moscow's Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral. They danced around and shouted some words to their song, "Virgin Mary, Get Putin Out." The stunt lasted less than a minute before the women were forcibly removed.

The same day, a video widely shared on social media showed a montage of the stunt with the song spliced in. The song criticizes the Russian Orthodox Church's alleged close relationship with the Kremlin and the personally close relationship of President Vladimir V. Putin with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Three of the band members were tried on criminal "hooliganism" charges. Their trial was theater of the absurd. In their closing statements, the women and their lawyers delivered devastating critiques of the state of justice and civic freedoms in Russia.

'Pussy Riot' convicted and sentenced
Madonna shows support for jailed band

During the Soviet era, the human rights landscape in Russia was stark. But since then the situation has been harder to figure out, often making it easier for outsiders simply to give the government a pass. But the devil is in the details.

It has been incredibly difficult to pin down any involvement of officials in the beatings and murders of investigative journalists and human rights activists. And the government, while not silencing civil society groups outright, tries to marginalize, discredit, and humiliate them, and crush them with heavy-handed bureaucracy, trumped-up accusations, threats and the like.

Whatever misdemeanor the three women incurred for their antics in the church should not have been transformed by the authorities into a criminal offense that in effect punishes them for their speech. It's typical, though, of how the authorities try to keep a lid on controversial issues. The Russian think tank SOVA has documented dozens of cases in recent years in which the authorities used the threat of extremism charges to silence critics.

This also isn't the first time Russian authorities have misused criminal legislation to stifle critical artistic expression. In 2010 a Moscow district court found the co-organizers of a controversial art exhibit guilty of the vague charge of "inciting religious hatred." The art exhibit organizers were fined.

By making the Pussy Riot band members await trial in jail for almost six months, the authorities made clear how they plan to set boundaries for political criticism.

After a winter of unprecedented, peaceful opposition protests, a dozen demonstrators whom the authorities claim were involved in a scuffle with police during a mass demonstration in May have been arrested and are being charged with crimes grossly disproportionate to their alleged actions. Police have searched opposition leaders' homes.

Laws rammed through Russia's parliament this summer sent more signals: criminal liability for leaders of nongovernmental organizations for "serious breaches" of new restrictive regulations; much tougher sanctions for violating rules on public assembly; and new restrictions on the Internet that could easily shut down big social networking sites. Critics of the Kremlin have been subject to vicious harassment, intimidation and grotesque public smear campaigns.

For years Russian human rights defenders have tried to draw attention to the lack of independence of the courts. With the unprecedented attention to the Pussy Riot trial, the surreal state of justice when political interests are at stake is there for all to see. What we really should be wondering isn't why Pussy Riot is so distinctive, but whether it's just the tip of the iceberg.

Too often, foreign governments have resorted to wishful thinking about the direction Russia is heading. Talking about human rights at a high level -- where all things in Russia are decided -- is unpleasant business. It might be hard, but Russia won't respect other governments if they shy away.

If three women in the defendants' cage had the courage to speak out about where Russia is headed, surely members of the international community should too. They, at least, won't be thrown in jail.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rachel Denber.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT