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Searching for Snowden and Finding Pussy Riot...

Posted: 16/08/2013 00:00

Pussy Riot Jail

Edward Snowden's whereabouts is currently unknown.

After a month camped out at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, America's most wanted man has been granted temporary asylum by the Russian authorities. For now at least, he retains some degree of liberty.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are not so lucky.

We know exactly where they are. Locked away at penal colonies in Nizhny Novgorod and Mordovia. A year ago this week (17 August), both women, members of the Russian punk feminist collective Pussy Riot, were sentenced after being convicted on charges of hooliganism incited by religious hatred. Appeals against their sentence denied, they will remain behind bars for another year.

Russia's seeming benevolence towards a man hunted for speaking a truth he felt the world should know, stands in sharp contrast to how it deals with its own citizens who dare to raise their voices. The irony of the Kremlin's tacit acknowledgement that those who speak out on matters of serious public interest deserve protection will not go unnoticed by Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova. It will not be overlooked by scores of people across Russia who find their ability to speak increasingly restricted since Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency.

Despite Pussy Riot commanding headlines around the world, much of the reasoning behind their original action has been lost, ignored or misunderstood. While it is unlikely that the world will forget that Edward Snowden has raised questions about potentially abusive surveillance practices in the US, fewer will recall Pussy Riot's concern about a growing closeness between church and state, a mutually reinforcing relationship that has been used to champion a conservative agenda and justify regressive politics.

A year on from the jailing of these two famous dissenting voices and it is even more difficult and dangerous to speak in Russia.

Putin has overseen a rapid, fierce and unprecedented crackdown on Russian civil society that shows no sign of abating. The State Duma, (un)affectionately referred to by many as the 'crazy printer', has cranked out one restrictive law after another.

Just days after Pussy Riot spent less than a minute dancing in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, urging the Virgin Mary to cast out Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church called for the criminalisation of blasphemy. Last month, new legislation was passed doing just that. Insulting the 'religious feelings of believers' is now a crime punishable by up to three years in prison or fine of up to £10,000. A heavy price to pay for an insult, if indeed you can work out what the authorities consider to be insulting.

Earlier this summer a law was passed banning 'homosexual propaganda.' Politicians said the measure was necessary for the protection of children. As a consequence, heavy fines can be handed out for talking about or sharing information concerning public health and education, including on crucial issues such as HIV. This law has also served to fuel a wave of homophobic violence in the country.

Last year, the Duma introduced legislation that requires NGOs receiving funding from abroad and that are deemed to be involved in political activity (a wide and uncertain category) to register as 'foreign agents'. The label has great symbolic significance in Russia, it holds negative connotations that hark back to the Cold War and exploit Russian patriotism in order to discredit critical voices.

Laws have also been passed that impose heavy fines on protests, allow for arbitrary online censorship, re-criminalise defamation and draw a wide and vague definition of treason (providing information directed at harming Russia's national security). The right to freedom of expression in Russia is under sustained ideological attack.

Alyokina and Tolokonnikova are not the only political prisoners in Russia.

More than 20 people have already spent a year in pre-trial detention following the Bolotnaya Square protests, in which thousands took to the streets in May 2012 to demonstrate against Putin's third inauguration. Sergey Udaltsov, the leader of a left-wing political opposition grouping, is currently under house arrest following Bolotnaya, pending an investigation into his involvement in 'plotting mass riots' linked to those protests.

Political activist and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny was recently convicted of embezzlement. A deliberately complex case, but at its heart a politically motivated prosecution on trumped up charges intended to silence him.

Pussy Riot sounded an alarm about the exercise of political power in Russia, which must continue to ring as authorities ferociously pursue people that speak out, voice criticism or express dissent.

You don't have to look far in Russia to find someone who has spoken out about a matter of serious public interest and who is being persecuted by the state. It just might not be Edward Snowden.

 

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