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Former New York Mayor 'Delighted' By Pussy Riot Verdict


Ed Koch (right) was mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989.

Ed Koch (right) was mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989.

The Russian justice system got a show of support this week from an unlikely source -- former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who said the hooliganism verdict handed down last week to Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich was "just and to be applauded."

In a commentary published earlier this week, the 87-year-old former mayor argued Pussy Riot's actions -- performing a "punk prayer" protesting Vladimir Putin in the middle of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral -- was less a matter of free speech and more a matter of religious hatred.

"The right to free expression is not unlimited and does not mean one can say anything anywhere and at any time," he wrote. And while one might quibble with the severity of the two-year sentence, he added, "I for one am delighted they now punish religious hatred. Aren't you?"

Koch, of course, speaks from a position of personal experience. While still serving as mayor, he was an active witness to one of the most notorious church protests in United States history -- the 1989 demonstration at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral by the AIDS activist group Act Up.

Koch was sitting in a first-row pew during Sunday Mass as dozens of protesters entered the cathedral to protest the Catholic Church's opposition to condoms and AIDS education. (Thousands more had gathered outside but stopped short of entering the church.) They disrupted the service, chaining themselves to pews and chanting a statement of complaint. One Act Up member went so far as to crush a communion wafer in his hands, throwing the crumbs to the floor in front of a stunned Archbishop Cardinal John O'Connor.

A number of the activists were arrested, but released the same day with only minor penalties.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, it's an outcome that still seems to stick in the ex-mayoral craw.

"So far as I know, no court has [ever] sanctioned them at all," Koch said in an interview this week with CBS New York. "Is this what you call free speech?"

So while many in the West continue to bemoan what they see as disproportionate payback for the Pussy Riot members, the verdict seems to have brought Koch a certain sense of closure.

Pussy Riot "went physically into the church, dancing around the altar, making prayers that were salacious," he said. "In my judgment, that requires punishment…I applaud the Russian justice system that says finally, 'Churches have rights.'"

-- Daisy Sindelar

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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