Pussy Riot Members Call Russia Amnesty A PR Stunt

1:59 PM, Dec 23, 2013   |    comments
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Two members of the brash Russian punk band Pussy Riot were released from prison Monday under a new amnesty law, but remained defiant, charging the Kremlin with mounting a public relations stunt to repair its human rights image in advance of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were serving a two-year sentence for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for staging a raucous, profanity-laced performance at Moscow's main cathedral in March 2012.

A third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released earlier on a suspended sentence.

The band members said their 2012 protest, which was videotaped and posted on YouTube, was aimed at raising concern about increasingly close ties between the state and the church.

Alekhina, 25, was freed in Nizhny Novgorod and Tolokonnikova, 24, was released from a prison hospital in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Both were scheduled for release in March, but qualified under the new amnesty bill because they have young children.

The law, passed by the Russian parliament last week, opens the way for the release of thousands of inmates. Charges against 30 people arrested while taking part in a Greenpeace protest at a Russian Arctic offshore oil rig may also be dropped later this week under the law, the BBC reports.

On Friday, President Vladimir Putin pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon and once Russia's richest man, who spent a decade in prison on fraud and tax evasion charges after challenging Putin's power.

Khodorkovsky flew to Germany after release and said he will stay out of politics. He pledged, however, to fight for the release of political prisoners in Russia.

Flashing a "V" sign, Tolokonnikova smiled to reporters as she walked out of the prison.

"How do you like our Siberian weather here?" she said, referring to the -13 Fahrenheit temperature.

Tolokonnikova, who said she and Alekhina will set up a human rights group to help prisoners, told reporters that the way prisons are run reflects the way the country is governed.

"I saw this small totalitarian machine from the inside," she said. "Russia functions the same way the prison colony does."

Tolokonnikova's husband told the BBC that the pair were even more determined to keep up their opposition activities.

"The only thing they have acquired over their two years in prison is their confidence to continue fighting Putin's regime even harder, because, well, this is the only thing that can change things in our country," he said.

Pressure has been building on Russia internationally over its human rights record, including the passage of a law earlier this year banning so-called homosexual propaganda among minors.

Alekhina told Dozhd TV that she would have served out her term if she had been able to reject amnesty.

"If I had a chance to turn it down, I would have done it, no doubt about that," she said. "This is not an amnesty. This is a hoax and a PR move."

Alekhina said that prison officials did not give her a chance to say goodbye to cell mates, but put her in a car and drove her to the train station in downtown Nizhny Novgorod. Before seeing her family and friends, she met with local rights activists and said she will work on defending human rights.

Russia's Supreme Court earlier this month ordered a review of the Pussy Riot case, saying that a lower court did not fully prove their guilt and did not take their family circumstances into consideration when reaching the verdict.

Also on Monday, the European Court of Human Rights said it will review a complaint filed by band members over their treatment while on trial in Moscow in 2012.

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