A Soviet-era show trial is currently taking place in the same Moscow courtroom that former Yukos Oil CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was convicted in under dubious circumstances in his second trial which occurred in December of 2010. This time, however, the Russian government’s wrath is focused upon three twenty-something female band members of the punk rock band, “Pussy Riot.” They have been accused of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and they each face – unbelievably – up to seven (7) years in prison.
The charges arise from the women’s trespass and unsanctioned “punk prayer service” at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior Church in Moscow in which they entreated the Virgin Mary to liberate Russia from Vladimir Putin. The cathedral, destroyed by Stalin in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s, is one of the holiest places in the Russian orthodox faith. The incident occurred in February of this year shortly before the March presidential election in which Putin was a candidate. The mock prayer service was videotaped and then uploaded with accompanying vocals and music to YouTube.
The trial that started last week has been described by western journalists covering it as a “theater of the absurd” and the trial will most likely irreparably damage the reputation of the orthodox church in the exes of the educated class. Additionally. the trial has caused a public relations nightmare for the newly elected President, Vladimir Putin, who rules over a country in which many of the people have long grown weary of his political oppressions of those whose only crimes are publicly opposing his views and policies.
The Pussy Riot trial also illustrates problems in the Russian criminal justice system which appears to western journalists as beholding to the Kremlin in trials that involve political opponents of the government. The three women of Pussy Riot have been held without bond under harsh conditions in a Moscow jail since their arrest in March. Each day of the trial, the women are transported to Court in police vehicles while handcuffed to uniformed female guards. During this time, male police troopers – armed with submachine guns – watch over them. The young women are then led into court and placed into a cage-like holding cell in the back of the courtroom. In addition to the armed troopers, a large one-hundred pound Rottweiler watches over them. It has been reported that the dog “barks every time the defense lawyers argue with the Judge.” On Friday, the Judge refused to allow the defense to call several witnesses, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was barred from entering the courtroom upon order of the Prosecutor.
Fortunately for the band members, President Putin told journalists last week in London that he did not want the defendants judged too severely and called for leniency from the Judge. Interestingly, the women – although facing seven years in prison – are being tried by a Judge and not a jury. Because of this, the President’s comments directly to the Judge, through western journalists, could have a profound impact.
A verdict should be reached at some point this week. The Russian Federation would be well-served if the verdict resulted in a “time-served” sentence so that the country and the government can move on to more important matters. Further harassment and imprisonment of the protestors will only serve to move the Russian people against the government.
The Russian Federation has recently ascended to membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), a move that will remove trade barriers and diversify its exports and grow its economy; an economy which has been too largely dependent on oil and gas exports. The move will also improve imports and lower prices for many foreign goods, as well as stimulate investment in the country by foreign businesses. Because of this, the unfortunate saga of the Pussy Riot Trial and harassment and prosecution of protest movement leaders like Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak must cease. The fact that President Putin even received questions from the western media about this in London during the Olympics serves only as a distraction and fails to further his objectives. Furthermore, the Russian protest movement, unlike those in the Middle East, does not seek to overthrow the government but rather to increase free speech and ensure fair elections. President Putin would be wise to allow public dissent while avoiding international condemnation, and in so doing his presidency and the country will move forward and prosper.
NOTE: This article diverges from previous blog posts which focused on criminal law. I have an interest in Russian law and politics and will periodically post blog articles about the same in hopes of starting a blog/website completely devoted to this area.