Sunday 23 November 2014

Eilis O'Hanlon: Pussy Riot anger needs to be the beginning, not end, of protests

Our righteous anger is too often tied to the glamour of celebrity endorsement, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 19/08/2012 | 05:00

It is entirely possible that the whole furore over the jailing of female Russian punk band Pussy Riot has been manufactured so that people in the West have an opportunity to repeat the group's name at regular intervals on the airwaves.



It's certainly true that there has been far more outrage at the treatment of Pussy Riot than there ever was about the appalling human rights records of countries such as China with which our own State enjoys such friendly relations.

Nonetheless, just because indignation is selective does not mean it is undeserved, and Russia remains an unpleasant police state whose long history of authoritarianism is barely concealed by a thin coat of democracy painted on a corrupt system after the Soviet system's collapse.

The arrest of Garry Kasparov, chess-champion-turned-opposition-leader, who was beaten up by the police last week when he arrived at the court to show his support for Pussy Riot, was just the latest incident.

Kasparov has been hounded by Vladimir Putin's goons for years for spearheading the campaign against the Russian president's increasing grip on power in Moscow -- and, unlike Pussy Riot, he has never actually committed an offence.

Because that's worth mentioning too. Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich did not deserve such a harsh two-year sentence for so-called hooliganism and religious hatred, but breaking into a Russian Orthodox cathedral in balaclavas and singing a song containing the words "holy shit, shit, the Lord's shit" would be a criminal offence in Ireland too.

It doesn't matter if the song was being sung as a political protest -- in this case, against the Russian patriarch's support for Putin's re-election. What they did was against the law, and I do wonder if we would be any more tolerant if an Irish band had, say, burst into the recent Eucharistic Congress and staged a similar protest against the Catholic Church.

In the UK, stupid young men have been jailed for posting offensive messages on Twitter. People in glass houses?

The only reason the women are now listed as "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International is because of the severity of the response by the Russian authorities.

Even the Russian Orthodox Church appealed for clemency. The fact that Mr Putin opted to squeeze every last ounce of punishment from the women like the unreformed KGB thug that he remains is what turned this story from a minor episode into an international scandal.

Our own Constantin Gurdgiev, as usual, got it right. The three women, he tweeted last week, should have been convicted for a misdemeanour, given a fine and community service, and that would have been the end of it.

That's basically what happened to gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell when he was charged with "indecent behaviour in a church" under an obscure section of the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act, formerly part of the Brawling Act of 1551. He interrupted the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter sermon at Canterbury Cathedral in protest at what he believed to be Dr George Carey's support for discrimination against gay and lesbian Christians.

He was found guilty, but the offence was declared to be the equivalent of a minor public order offence, and Tatchell was fined £18.60 plus costs. End of story.

Instead of learning the lessons of that case, Mr Putin's vindictive pursuit of Pussy Riot has drawn global attention onto his own contempt for human and democratic rights, drawing in the support of a plethora of other musicians from Paul McCartney to Yoko Ono, Bjork and the Pet Shop Boys, names guaranteed to ensure the case gets even greater publicity in a culture which worships celebrity.

And now that the spotlight has finally been trained on Putin's Russia -- officially designated an "authoritarian regime" by the Democracy Index last year -- that's exactly where it should stay.

Laws have been passed restricting the right to legitimate street protest. Special forces raid the homes of activists who speak out about repression.

A draft law has been presented which would give authorities the right to censor content on the internet.

The killing of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, shot dead in the lift of her apartment block because of her work exposing government corruption, was only one of up to 200 murders of journalists since the mid-Nineties.

Russia is now declared by international observers to be among the most unsafe countries for journalists to work, and the rate of successful convictions for the unlawful killings of reporters and editors is scandalously low. With the Black Sea resort of Sochi due to host the Winter Olympics in 2014, there has also been concern at forced evictions and the treatment of construction workers.

The best hope is that the furore over Pussy Riot's ludicrous two-year sentence will be the beginning, rather then the end, of international protest.

But the omens are not good. We tend to pay huge attention to stories when they come with the glamour of celebrity, then quickly forget once the next distraction comes along.

Marie Colvin's death in Syria was another example. For a while, the world demanded action. Then the world moved on and the Syrian regime and anti-government rebels went back to doing what they'd been doing before, unseen and unchecked.

Vladimir Putin made a misjudgement when he took on Pussy Riot, but he's probably not misjudging if he thinks that condemnation will turn to silence in the same way.

In fact, if he had any sense, he'd intervene to have Pussy Riot quickly released, bask in the immediate glow of approval, and then simply carry on the Sovietisation of Russia in secrecy whilst the world turns its gaze to the next big story. Don't bet against it.

Sunday Independent

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