Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina join a long line of courageous women in Russia who, in recent years, have been imprisoned, threatened, intimidated and killed for speaking out against the authorities. Many believe that state repression has worsened under Vladimir Putin with a return to Soviet-era tactics, such as psychiatric detention, to silence dissident voices.
Award-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead on 7 October 2006, her body found slumped in an elevator outside her apartment in Moscow. Her murder had all the hallmarks of a contract killing, down to the kontrolnyi vystrel – the control shot, a final bullet into the head at close range – and there is no doubt that her death was in retribution for her fearless reporting, particularly on human rights abuses in Chechnya.
At the time of her death, she had been working on an article about torture in the region that implicated Ramzan Kadyrov, then the Chechen Prime Minister.
On 5 July 2007, Larisa Arap was forcibly detained in a psychiatric clinic near the Arctic city of Murmansk. It was believed that the move was in retaliation for an article by Arap in which she exposed abusive practices in a local children’s psychiatric ward and noted the use of violence and electric shock treatment. Arap was also a member of one of the few opposition groups left operating in Russia, the United Civil Front, led by chess champion turned dissident Garry Kasparov. Some believe that this association was another reason behind her incarceration. (Kasparov was among several people arrested outside the court in Moscow, where members of Pussy Riot were standing trial.)
According to Arap, the ‘hospital personnel tied her to her bed, beat her, tried to smother her with a pillow, and injected her with undisclosed drugs’. Yelena Vasilyeva, head of the United Civil Front in Murmansk, said that when Arap’s husband and daughter arrived at the clinic, the doctor on duty threw a copy of the newspaper containing the critical article in their faces, yelling at them that “no one has a right to write on what is going on in the hospital”. Following a concerted international campaign, Arap was finally released after forty-six days. Yevgeny Zenin, the hospital’s chief doctor, denied the allegations of abuse and said: “We are representatives of a state medical institution; they are libeling Russia.”
On 15 July 2009 another award-winning human rights activist and freelance journalist, Natalia Estemirova, was brutally murdered. Estemirova worked with Memorial, one of Russia’s best known and oldest human rights group. She was a close friend and colleague of Politkovskaya and they investigated some of the same cases together for the independent Moscow-based paper Novaya Gazeta and other local papers.
On the morning of 15 July, Estemirova was reportedly seized by four unknown men as she left for work and was bundled into the back of a white car. Neighbours at her house in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, heard her shout: “I’m being kidnapped.” Later her body was found dumped on the main road of a village in Chechnya’s neighbouring republic, Ingushetia. She had been shot in the head and the chest. At the time of her death, Estemirova was documenting the rise in kidnappings and extrajudicial executions in Chechnya.
Last week, three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a labour camp. But their provocative act of resistance and subsequent trial has drawn global attention to the level of repression in Russia today and the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties to the Kremlin. Their plight has not been restricted to human rights lobby groups advocating for their release, but has evidently struck a chord with thousands of ordinary people around the world.
Their action did not cause physical damage to any person, building or property and would normally have resulted in a lesser punishment, caution or financial penalty. Many are now sending appeals to President Putin via the Kremlin website calling for the release of the three women whose harsh sentence is clearly in retaliation for their lyrics, containing language that is strongly critical of the Church and of President Putin. As such, it is in breach of Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which Russia is a signatory. Messages of solidarity can be sent via the FreePussyRiot website.
Originally published by the Independent online