Tuesday 26 September 2017

Pussy Riot member goes on hunger strike over ‘slave’ conditions in penal colony

Member of the female punk band
Member of the female punk band "Pussy Riot" Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Gabriela Baczynska

A JAILED member of Russia's Pussy Riot punk band said she was starting a hunger strike to protest against "slave labour" in her penal colony.

She also claimed she had received a death threat from a senior prison official.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was sentenced to two years in jail in August 2012 after performing what the band called a "punk prayer" in a Moscow cathedral in a protest against President Vladimir Putin that came amid street protests against his rule.

"Beginning September 23, I am going on hunger strike and refusing to participate in colony slave labour," Tolokonnikova wrote in a letter circulated by her husband Pyotr Verzilov.

"I will do this until the administration starts obeying the law and stops treating incarcerated women like cattle," she wrote.

Tolokonnikova is in Penal Colony No.14 in the Mordovia region, southeast of Moscow, where she said inmates were forced to work up to 17 hours a day sewing police uniforms.

She said workers got no more than four hours sleep a night and said prison officials used senior inmates to enforce order in a system reminiscent of Soviet-era Gulag forced labour camps.

She said collective punishment, increasing production quotas and cases of violence against those who failed to deliver were common in the penal colony where she said living conditions failed to meet human rights standards and Russian law.

"Your hands are pierced with needles and covered in scratches, your blood is all over the work table, but still you keep sewing," she wrote.

Tolokonnikova said she had also asked the regional arm of the federal Investigative Committee to investigate a senior prison official whom she quoted as saying after a complaint about conditions: "You will surely never feel bad again because it is never bad in the other world."

Penal colony administrators declined to comment on her accusations and the Mordovia region's prison authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.

Critics say the sentencing of Tolonnikova and two other band members is part of a crackdown on dissent since Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term in May 2012.

The Pussy Riot protest offended many in the mostly Russian Orthodox country but their treatment has also won them high-profile support in the West with celebrities including Madonna and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney speaking up for them.

Tolokonnikova is due for release in March, as is fellow band member Maria Alyokhina. A third band member had her sentence changed to a suspended one.

Alyokhina went on hunger strike in the summer after officials prevented her from attending a parole hearing. She was hospitalised in late May and ended her protest days after prison authorities agreed to her demands, Verzilov said.

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