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Inside the Pussy Riot Trial

Posted: 09/08/2012 01:00

The international spotlight has this week been focused on a court case in Moscow involving three young women, Nadya, Masha and Katya, who are part of a loose network of punk musicians/performance artists calling themselves Pussy Riot.

Their alleged crime was to have performed what they dubbed "a punk prayer" in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February, a 40 second performance of a song calling on the Virgin Mary to join forces with them against Vladimir Putin.

This resulted in them being charged with "hooliganism", an offence that carries a maximum seven year jail sentence. The prosecution in court this week has called for three years, which may be a response to Putin's comments in London last week, when he came over to talk to see the judo at the Olympics and talk to our prime minister about Syria. He was quoted as saying that the women shouldn't be treated too harshly.

The trial has in large part been about whether the band were demonstrating "religious hatred" by their actions, or whether - as the women maintain - it was a political protest. The prosecuting lawyer somewhat bizarrely argued in his closing statement that it wasn't a political statement as no politicians were named, although the song is called Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Out.

The band argue, perhaps a little facetiously, that the song isn't anti-religious because they're enlisting the Virgin Mary onto their side. The female lawyer representing the nine victims in court (that is, those who say they were insulted or traumatised by seeing the performance) was outraged by the band's suggestion that Mary was a feminist, and said that "feminism is a mortal sin".

The trial process was in parts bewildering to watch. The Russians don't have the same structure to their hearings that we do in the UK, and there were a series of 'petitions' from the defence and the defendants, and a total of eight motions from the defence for recusal of the judge, i.e. that she should stand down on grounds of bias. Unsurprisingly the judge didn't accept these! Having separate lawyers to represent the victims is interesting, and is something that has been talked about in the UK, for example, for rape victims.

It was also interesting that the women got to speak up for themselves at various points throughout the trial, rather than as would be usual in the UK speaking only through their lawyers except when being cross-examined under oath. So on Wednesday, the last day of the trial, the three got to make powerful statements, explaining their political philosophy and why they chose to express themselves in the way they did.

There have, however, been many criticisms made of the trial process: the fact the defence weren't allowed to call the witnesses they wanted to, and not allowed to examine the prosecution witnesses/victims properly either. I wasn't there for the victims' testimony but people have reported that the judge was very quick to shut down questions, and simply didn't allow the sort of cross-examination that the defence wanted.

There have also been many concerns raised about the way the women are being treated: they say they are only getting a few hours sleep a night, they aren't being fed during their 12 hour days at court, and Nadya and Masha have not been able to see their two small children. There has also been an order made barring Nadya's husband, Peter, from visiting her, after - I was told - he was seen to be too active in calling for their release.

It was Peter who managed to get Madonna to don a balaclava on stage to perform Like a Virgin in Moscow on Tuesday night, with "Pussy Riot" scrawled in big letters across her back. We may sometimes mock celebrities who get involved in political issues, but there is no doubt that Madonna has a huge audience and a statement from her in support of Pussy Riot has a real impact.

The trial verdict will be delivered on 17 August at 3pm Moscow time. Until then Nadya, Masha and Katya will remain in prison, as they have been since their arrest in February. Their lawyers have said that a conviction is inevitable. The question is whether the judge will listen to the prosecution's call for a three year sentence or will listen to those who think the band have already been punished more than enough, and should be released. The defence lawyers say that it is not the judge who will decide, it is Putin himself. The world is watching while he makes up his mind.

 

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