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Former Pussy Riot Member Warns Against Russian Prison Bill


Pussy Riot band member and political activist Maria Alyokhina attends the "Prospects for Russia after Putin" debate in the Houses of Parliament in London in November 2014 (with bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in background).

Pussy Riot band member and political activist Maria Alyokhina attends the "Prospects for Russia after Putin" debate in the Houses of Parliament in London in November 2014 (with bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in background).

A former member of the punk protest band Pussy Riot is warning that jailers in Russia could be given even more authority to use force against inmates under what human rights defenders are calling the "law of the sadists."

Maria Alyokhina tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that if legislation now before the State Duma is adopted, "any remaining humanism in the penitentiary system will be simply killed."

Alyokhina, 27, has seen Russian jails from the inside.

She and Pussy Riot bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova spent nearly two years in prison for singing a "punk prayer" mocking Vladimir Putin in Moscow's main cathedral in February 2012, when he was successfully seeking a third presidential term with support from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

They were released in December 2013, under an amnesty they dismissed as a propaganda stunt ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Since their release from separate prisons, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have become outspoken advocates for reform of a penitentiary system they say is rotten to the core. And now, Alyokhina says the system could become even more brutal.

The legislation, submitted by the government on May 27, would broaden the circumstances under which prison security officers can use force against inmates, including when the "prison regime" or order is deemed to be threatened. Under existing Russian law, prison guards can only use force against inmates under life-threatening circumstances.

The bill would also add electroshock weapons, such as Tasers, to the arsenal of instruments guards may use.

Defending The 'Regime'

Moreover, the proposed legislation would absolve security officers of liability if inmates suffer injuries when guards resort to physical force that is deemed justified.

Alyokhina says this will give prison security officers, many of whom she says are far from shy about wielding a baton, even more leeway to apply force. "If this law is approved, using batons or stun guns will be solely at the discretion of a single guard or correctional officer," Alyokhina says.

The main problem, she says, is defining a violation or threat to prison order. "What is a violation of the prison rules? It could be an unmade bed or an unbuttoned button," Alyokhina explains.

Lawmakers who support the tougher measures say they are necessary to clamp down on an alleged increase in the number of riots by inmates in Russia's jails and prison camps.

Alyokhina says if there is growing unrest in Russia's penitentiary system it is a result of the inhumane conditions from which inmates suffer. "A riot, hunger strike, or mass suicide are extreme actions only taken by inmates after there has been a killing...or violence against the prisoners. It's not something done on a whim," she says.

"It would be irresponsible, to say the least, to say that someone would cut their veins or go on hunger strike, putting their life at risk, simply for blackmail or entertainment," she adds.

'They Can Call Us What They Want'

Alyokhina says the prisoners' rights group that she and Tolokonnikova established, Zona Prava (Law Zone), is working on a groundbreaking "interactive map" charting Russia's extensive penitentiary system and its many problems.

"The project will give us a full picture of the penitentiary system that we have at the moment: from the living conditions, and the number of riots, to the number of large-scale corruption investigations of the regional offices of the Federal Prison Service," Alyokhina says.

Alyokhina was speaking from the United States during a visit to exchange information and experiences with human rights activists there.

Her visit comes a month after Putin signed legislation allowing prosecutors to declare foreign and international organizations "undesirable" in Russia and shut them down.

Analysts say the law is part of a Kremlin campaign to stifle dissent that has intensified during Putin's third term. The U.S. State Department called it "a further example of the Russian government's growing crackdown on independent voices and intentional steps to isolate the Russian people from the world."

In 2012, Putin signed legislation requiring any NGO that receives foreign funding and is deemed to be involved in politics to register as a foreign agent.

"They've called me everything, now 'foreign agent.' It doesn't matter to me. I could call them a few things too," Alyokhina says, stressing that Zona Prava is operating within the laws of Russia without grants from foreign partners.

Alyokhina remains defiant, vowing to carry on her human rights advocacy despite the tightening restrictions. "I think tough times only strengthen us," she says. "Plus, there's no other way, if we truly believe we are citizens of this country. Yes, they can raid our offices, burn them down, kick us out of the country, so what? I think that we, the people, will outlive them. We are young, they aren't."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on an interview by Yevgenia Nazaretz of RFE/RL's Russian Service
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