International

Pussy Riot’s new cause: US inmates

In their first US appearance, members of Russian punk band also speak out on alleged rights abuses at Winter Olympics

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot at a press conference in New York on Tuesday.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

NEW YORK — They arrived like rock stars in a black van with darkened windows, wearing black clothes and dark eyeliner, traveling straight from John F. Kennedy Airport to the Amnesty International headquarters in downtown Manhattan. Huddled before a side entrance of the building, they smoked cigarettes, enjoying a moment of peace after a tour in Europe.

On Wednesday, Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina were set to make their first public appearance in the United States after being released from a Russian prison. They were scheduled to speak at a Brooklyn concert organized by the human rights advocacy group and featuring stars such as Madonna.

Two years ago, the band's feminist punk rock prayer against Russian President Vladimir Putin landed the women in prison. Now, they’re the stars of a human rights campaign more famous than their music ever was. And it was their activism that drew a crowd of journalists who wanted to learn about the women's campaign against what they described as political imprisonment around the world.

“Thank you for supporting us the last two years," Tolokonnikova said at the New York news conference Tuesday. "Without the letters that you have been sending us it would have been really hard to live.

“For us, it’s a wonderful example of how the civic society around the world can be put to work.”

Days before the Feb. 7 opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympic Games in Russia, the activists spoke out against alleged mass corruption scandals in Sochi, the site of the games, and attempted to raise awareness about people jailed for their beliefs, race, gender or sexual orientation.

“What happened to us doesn’t stand out from other cases in Russia. It is part of a wider crackdown on liberties in Russia that is happening right now,” Tolokonnikova said.

On Tuesday an environmental activist was arrested near Sochi for his work exposing damage caused by construction projects, human rights organizations reported, a day after Evgeniy Vitishko, a member of the watchdog group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, was sentenced to 15 days’ detention in the southern Russian city of Tuapse.

Alekhina said she wants Americans to look beyond the grandeur of the projects and buildings of the games.

“They are foreign objects in Russia,” she said. “The only thing that connects Russia to these objects is taxpayers’ money, which has been stolen and has been used to build these Olympic objects.”

Samir Goswami, managing director of the Amnesty International USA program Individuals and Communities at Risk, said he hopes the Brooklyn event helps focus the public conversation on human rights in Russia. "It keeps the pressure on the Russian government to ensure freedom of association and assembly for Russians," he said.

In 2012, Putin issued a series of laws as part of a crackdown on civil liberties. One, the "foreign agent" law, required all nongovernmental organizations receiving funds from international entities to register with the Russian government. Failure to register exposes a group to the possibility of losing its permission to operate in Russia and other repercussions, such as office raids by authorities.

Alekhina called on President Barack Obama to increase pressure on Russia over alleged human rights abuses, and said she and Tolokonnikova are handing over a petition to Putin to help “end this bullshit.”

“Aren’t you sick of it all, Putin?” Tolokonnikova asked.

International response to prior calls to boycott the games has garnered some largely symbolic gestures. Obama is including three openly gay athletes in the official U.S. delegation to the Sochi Winter Olympics in a rebuke of Putin’s anti-gay laws. And Norwegian Health Minister Bent Hoie said he is taking his male spouse to the opening ceremony. But 12 peaceful protesters remain incarcerated after police arrested them at anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow two years ago, the pair from Pussy Riot said.

US prisoners

Now that the band is an icon for the struggle against human rights abuses in Putin's Russia, the two women said it will also act for the rights of prisoners in the United States. Tolokonnikova and Alekhina said they plan to visit prisons and meet with nonprofit organizations to learn about the issue of solitary confinement in the U.S.

"They found a lot of support from folks in the U.S., especially from Russia's diaspora community in Brooklyn, who called passionately for their release," Goswami said. "But they're also learning about the prison conditions in the U.S. and plan on doing some research here."

“We're very interested in the fact of how NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in the U.S. work and collaborate with penitentiary institutions,” Alekhina said. “One of our main goals is to exchange experience.”

Pussy Riot inspired a new generation of activists around the world, Goswami said, adding that their supporters followed in the footsteps of those who helped Amnesty International obtain the release of some 44,000 prisoners since its international inception in 1961.

"Pussy Riot were street performers," he said. At the subway, on the streets, they would call on people to take their rights seriously. “There are street performers in the U.S. whom we pass every day, but we don't realize that they can help elevate human rights to the global conversation."

Goswami said he hopes that people leave the Wednesday event realizing that "when we act individually or collectively, it has an impact. Tens of thousands of people supported Pussy Riot, and now they're free."

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