Jailed members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were moved to prison camps in late October. Masha to the Berezniki penal colony near the city of Perm and Nadya to a prison camp in Mordovia. The prison camps in Perm and Mordovia are part of a network of Soviet-era prison camps infamous for their tough conditions.
Neither Masha’s nor Nadya’s relatives were aware they had been moved: they only found out when parcels sent to the Moscow prison in which the Pussy Riot activists were being held was returned to sender.
Masha has now been transferred to solitary confinement. Information on the reasons for this is very scanty: Masha was moved on Wednesday 21st November but this was not revealed until Friday 23rd November.
According to BBC world news solitary confinement was at Masha’s own request after she was attacked by other inmates because she refused to join a hunger strike. However there has been no information about the demands of the hunger strike and why Masha refused to join in. And this would hardly be the first time that repressive regimes have used ‘non-political’ prisoners to attack politicals.
The reality is that Masha is almost certainly on de facto hunger strike as she is a vegan and her nutritional needs are almost certainly not being met. During the trial she collapsed at least once which prompted US actress Alicia Silverstone to call on President Putin to ensure Masha received an adequate vegan diet.
And while Ms Silverstone may have been naive in believing that Putin would take any notice of her she certainly raised a serious issue about Masha’s health and did not deserve the exceptionally snide rubbishing she received in the Guardian’s ‘Lost in Showbiz’ column. (Yes, Hadley Freeman, we mean you).
In the meantime Masha and Nadya have sacked their lawyers, accusing them of trying to commercialise Pussy Riot. Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was originally sentenced to two years along with Nadya and Masha but later released on probation has accused her former lawyer, Mark Feigin, of applying for the Pussy Riot trademark without the group’s knowledge.
All three convicted Pussy Riot members wrote a letter from prison firmly opposing any commercialization of the group.
This argument looks likely to go on for some time as some in Russia recognise the potential market for Pussy Riot branded goods – estimated at $1 million without any promotion. As an earlier punk band, the Clash, put it:
‘Huh, you think it’s funny, Turning rebellion into money’.
Despite, or perhaps because of the criticism he has received over the jailing of Pussy Riot, Putin has certainly not softened his attitude. In the middle of November he met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who – reflecting the views of the German Parliament – raised the two year sentences given to Masha and Nadya.
Far from apologising Putin told the German Chancellor that Pussy Riot were anti-Semitic and that one of them had hung an effigy of a Jew and said that ‘these people need to be got rid of in Moscow’.
As Guardian Moscow correspondent Miriam Elder pointed out:
‘Putin was apparently referring to an event in 2008 when members of the Voina (War) radical art group staged a mock hanging of three migrant workers and two gays, one of them Jewish, in a Moscow supermarket.
The “action”, involving actors rather than effigies, was intended as an ironic protest against homophobia, anti-semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment in Russia. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevichtwo of the three members of the Pussy Riot group who were sentenced to two years in prison over the cathedral incident, both took part’.
The Voina protest was to highlight the violence regularly meted out in Moscow to migrant workers from ex-Soviet states and bans on gay rights marches – a ban that has now been extended to one hundred years.,
Miriam Elder is being exceptionally generous when she writes:
‘It was unclear if Mr Putin had been poorly informed by advisers about the true nature of the supermarket protest, or if he wilfully chose to misinterpret its meaning’.
There is no doubt Putin is attempting to crack down on democratic rights. As we report elsewhere a number of supporters of left-wing organisations have been arrested and face long jail terms for serious, though trumped up offences. During the summer laws rammed through the Duma imposed new restrictions on public assemblies, internet content and libel. One recent measure imposes a huge increase in potential fines for participants in unauthorised demonstrations. Another requires non-governmental organisations to register as foreign agents if they both receive money from abroad and engage in political activity.
Yet another gives sweeping power to authorities to ban websites under a procedure critics denounce as opaque. The adoption of these laws was carried out with hitherto unprecedented speed. Now, with same haste, Putin has dramatically revised the treason laws
Under the new law not only Russians working for foreign intelligence can be convicted but also citizens who pass state secrets to any foreign organisation..
Even if no secrets have been divulged, the treason charge may still be used.
It is enough for defendants to provide consultancy or ‘other assistance’ to a foreign state or international body ‘directed against Russia’s security’.
The maximum punishment for high treason remains 20 years in prison but under the changes, Russians can now be jailed for up to four years if they have obtained state secrets – even if they have not shared them.
They can be jailed for up to eight years if they obtain them with the help of special surveillance equipment.
Of course the new treason law is not designed to prevent Putin ally Roman Abramovich talking to Rafa Benitez (or whoever happens to be Chelsea manager when you read this). It is designed to prevent oppositionists, particular the left-wing opposition in Russia, joining up with supporters throughout the world to campaign for democratic rights in Russia and to oppose the large scale theft of resources by the oligarchs who surround Putin.
The real giveaway is the the removal of the stipulation that actions must be aimed against Russia’s external security to be considered treasonous. It broadens the actions that can attract treason charges to include giving ‘financial, material, technical, consultative or other aid‘ to a government or organisation deemed to be seeking to undermine Russian security.
Political opponents and rights activists have explained that the law is the latest in a series intended to crack down on the opposition since Putin returned to the Kremlin in May. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a former Soviet dissident and veteran human rights activist, drew comparisons with the darkest days under Stalin.
‘It’s an attempt to return not just to Soviet times but to the Stalin era, when any conversation with a foreigner was seen as a potential threat to the state,’ she said, adding that the law would probably be used selectively against Kremlin critics and others ‘who irritate the authorities’. Public smear campaigns on state television have targeted prominent political opposition figures. The authorities have thoroughly demonized Golos, an election monitoring group, conflating the work it does to monitor the vote with alleged support for the opposition. If Golos were to claim that election fraud had been carried out (and in Putin’s Russia the notion that electoral fraud did not take place is not credible) their members could be charged with treason.
The law was backed by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor of the Soviet KGB secret police. It was signed by Putin, a former KGB officer, after being approved by both houses of parliament in just nine days in October. Such is Putin’s determination to cement his position.
But Putin’s increasingly repressive regime is an indication not of its strength but its weakness. It has no legitimacy, it is tainted with large scale electoral fraud and is threatened by growing opposition. For the moment it has the support of the Orthodox Church hierarchy (though that cannot be taken for granted) and the security services but is becoming increasingly discredited both in Russia and internationally. There is a small but growing left-wing opposition within Russia who need our support. That includes :
campaigning for the release of all those activists currently awaiting trial,
freeing of the 2 Pussy Riot members and withdrawal of all charges against the band;
repeal of all the repressive legislation introduced by Putin, in particular the treason law and the ban on gay pride marches.