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Pussy Riot rockers in US to fight for jailed bandmates

08 june 2013, 13:10
0
Placard reads "Free Pussy Riot". ©REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Placard reads "Free Pussy Riot". ©REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Two members of the Russian feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot on Friday urged the United States to help free their bandmates jailed last year for an anti-government protest performance, AFP reports.

The two women, who slipped into the country on a surprise visit, met with US lawmakers as well as White House and State Department officials in a bid to publicize their friends' plight and press for their freedom.

Maria Alyokhina, who has just celebrated her 25th birthday, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, are being held in separate Russian penal colonies to serve two-year jail terms imposed for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

The sentences -- handed down after the balaclava-wearing band of rockers performed a protest song against President Vladimir Putin in an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow in February 2012 -- have been met with global condemnation.

A third member of the band, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was convicted but later released on appeal with a suspended sentence and strict probation conditions.

The visiting band members, who wanted to be known by the pseudonyms Fabra and Shaiba, on Friday shed their brightly-colored headgear, revealing their faces at a small press conference hosted by rights watchdog Human Rights First.

But they asked that no pictures or video be taken and that their voices be disguised in audio-tapes, fearful of repercussions by Russian authorities.

"We came to Washington, DC specifically... to meet with several members of Congress and politicians to discuss our situation," Shaiba said. "We asked them for their help."

The sentences imposed on their bandmates are a "vicious example of injustice and a vivid demonstration of the violation of freedom of speech and human rights and self-expression," she added, speaking through a translator.

The women urged US officials to raise the case with Putin and Russian authorities, and to seek to visit Alyokhina, who has just ended an 11-day hunger strike, and Tolokonnikova in the prison colonies where they are held.

Both jailed rockers have recently lost appeals against their sentences, and their friends are increasingly worried for their health, particularly Tolokonnikova who has been suffering from "tremendous headaches," Shaiba said.

In the colonies, far from Moscow, about 120 people live together in one big room, working, showering and eating together.

Denouncing the fact that the jailed band members are being held alongside convicted murderers and drug offenders, the women said their friends are also forced to sew military police uniforms.

"It is a humiliation, because they are making uniforms for the people who have imprisoned them and are keeping guard," Shaiba said.

Their friends were being particularly targeted by the camp authorities, who have also tried to turn other inmates against them.

"They pay close attention to them, because they attract a lot of media attention and extensive international support," Shaiba said.

But she insisted it was "very important" for foreign governments and the media to keep a spotlight on the issue "because it doesn't allow the government to be completely out of control and it actually forces them to be more careful and attentive towards the laws of the Russian federation," Shaiba said.

World music icons such as Madonna and Paul McCartney have also backed calls for the two jailed band members, who both have young children, to be freed.

Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, said the watchdog "remained committed to shining a light on the politically-motivated Russian laws" that led to the prosecution of the Pussy Riot members.

Such laws were intended to be used to prosecute violent hate crimes such as those carried out by skinheads, but are now "being used to silence government critics," she said.

Out of safety concerns, the two women refused to say how they arrived in the United States, their future plans or if they would visit other countries.

But they said they wanted to keep making music, even though all their videos and songs are currently banned under Russia's draconian laws.

They said the band, which has about eight members, formed in October 2011 ahead of presidential elections the following year, which saw Putin return to power after briefly handing over the post to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Pussy Riot also wanted to show opposition to the "sexist society" in Russia and the macho image presented by its leadership, including Putin.

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