Monday, November 24, 2014


Russia

'Speaking Truth To Power:' Pussy Riot Members Tell Congress Of Rights Abuses

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (center) -- with fellow Pussy Riot member, Maria Alyokhina (left), and husband Pyotr Verzilov (right) -- holds a list of names of individuals they believe should be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, in Washington on May 6.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (center) -- with fellow Pussy Riot member, Maria Alyokhina (left), and husband Pyotr Verzilov (right) -- holds a list of names of individuals they believe should be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act, in Washington on May 6.
By Luke Johnson
WASHINGTON -- Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina from the Pussy Riot art collective walked out of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting room to the snapping of cameras from the major television networks as around 20 reporters waited to hear them speak. 

"We have to talk about these people, we have to talk about our political prisoners, because we know that silence is the most dangerous thing for a political prisoner, and if we allow these people to be forgotten they might easily be killed," said Tolokonnikova through her translator and husband, Pyotr Verzilov, after the meeting on May 6. 

Their message was simple: they wanted the names of 16 Russian government officials, many of whom took part in the crackdown on the Bolotnaya Square protest of May 6, 2012, to be added to the so-called Magnitsky List, which allows the United States to sanction Russian officials. 

The Bolotnaya case has attracted relatively little attention outside of Russia in comparison with the crackdown on members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community as well as Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina's own imprisonment. 

It was, to put it mildly, more attention than a press conference on Russian human rights would ordinarily get.

Since staging a "punk prayer" protest on February 21, 2012 in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior and enduring over a year of harsh imprisonment on charges of "hooliganism," the two women have become such an international symbol of the opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin that they can get United States senators to praise a punk rock group. 

Some of the names they mentioned included Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Russia's interior minister, and Alexander Bastrykin , the head of Russia's investigative committee. 

Senator Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland), who chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission, indicated that the names listed by the group would be "very helpful" in adding to the list of people sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act. 

"We will very much use the information that has been provided here for appropriate action under the Magnitsky law," he said.

In addition to Cardin, the women were flanked by Senators Chris Murphy (Democrat-Connecticut), Richard Blumenthal (Democrat-Connecticut), Jeff Flake (Republican-Arizona) and Representative Steve Cohen (Democrat-Tennessee.), all of whom praised them fulsomely for their courage. 

"They have truly epitomized speaking truth to power," said Blumenthal. "They are also giving a face and voice to a vile and vicious violation of human rights by the Russian government and the persecution -- not prosecution -- but persecution of dissent and free statement in Russia." 

The women did not limit their criticisms to Russia. They offered their support to an Occupy Wall Street protester, Cecily McMillan, who was convicted on May 5 for assaulting a police officer after a jury rejected her contention that she was groped. "We were quite appalled and saddened to hear about that," said Verzilov. "We have sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street [movement] and we honestly believe that no country should have political prisoners." 

The Capitol was not the only spot in Washington where Pussy Riot drew attention. The women attended several parties associated with the White House Correspondents' Dinner over the weekend, showing up in a few of the ubiquitous Twitpics posted during the event.    It was not clear that their speaking out in Washington would serve them well at home. A reporter asked whether they were putting themselves "at risk" by speaking here. 

"Nothing good," shot back Tolkonnikova. But they offered a clue to their next hit after a reporter asked them for comment on a new law signed by Putin banning "foul language" in books, music and television. 

"My wish is that someone could make a Pussy Riot song with a lot of obscenities and publish it on the Internet and see what happens," said Tolkonnikova through Verzilov.

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