What I learned from the Pussy Riot trial

The punk band are on trial because of who they are, not what they did.

I've just got back from spending two days in Moscow observing the Pussy Riot trial and meeting some of the activists and lawyers involved in the Free Pussy Riot campaign. The Russian legal system, I now know, is rather strange and unpredictable, but I think yesterday saw the end of the trial. We had closing speeches from the prosecuting lawyer, the 'victims'' lawyers (i.e. those who complained about the performance and claim to be insulted or traumatised by it), and the defence, plus final speeches from the three defendants, Nadya, Masha and Katya. The court resumes at 11.30am on Wednesday (8.30am UK time) when we may or may not have a verdict.

As ever, it's frustrating that public awareness and political momentum only comes to a head when it's almost too late. I'd asked a couple of parliamentary questions about it, and the minister for Europe confirmed that the UK was concerned about the case, was critical of the way it was being conducted, and was going to raise it at the next Human Rights dialogue with Russia, on July 13th. But apart from that, my tweets and retweets seemed to be ignored, and only the music blogs - which is where I first heard about the case - were taking any interest.

Once the trial had got underway, however, press attention increased exponentially, and there have been some excellent articles published during the last week or so. I think the problem at first was that, in the UK, people simply didn't take it seriously. It was just a silly stunt, by a band with a silly name. I don't think people realised the wider significance of what the arrests said about who wields power in Russia, and what kind of society it is. "They violated the traditions of our country" said one lawyer. Another - the female lawyer for the victims - seemed to imply that not being an orthodox Christian was in itself a good enough reason for sending someone to jail, and then went on to describe feminism as "a mortal sin". It's clear from watching the trial that Pussy Riot are facing jail sentences because of who they are, what they stand for, what they believe in - not because of what they did.

I've been asked by many people what would have been the response if Pussy Riot had pulled this stunt in St Paul's instead. As people have reminded me, Peter Tatchell was charged with a public order offence after he stormed the pulpit in the middle of a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury and ended up with an £18 fine. Some have pointed to the draconian sentences handed out to last year's rioters - which I criticised at the time - but I don't think that bears direct comparison. Yes, the aftermath of the riots was about the powers that be wanting to show themselves to be tough, and there was a lot of politics behind it, but the rioters had committed actual criminal offences. Pussy Riot have been prosecuted under an ancient ecclesiastical law that hasn't been invoked for centuries, because the authorities wanted to find them guilty of something, and something that carried a harsh - maximum seven years - sentence too.

Plenty has been written elsewhere about the shortcomings in the trial process and the dubious nature of the charges brought. The thing that struck me most was how one-sided the evidence was. The defence simply weren't allowed to call witnesses, other than a couple of character witnesses, and weren't able to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses/ victims properly either, with the judge either rushing them through it or ruling their questions inadmissible.

On the first day, I was in court, which was the sixth day of the trial, it was mostly about 'petitions' being presented by the defence lawyers and the women - petitions as in requests, for example, to be able to call expert witnesses. The judge dismissed this, saying they'd had plenty of time to call such witnesses already, even though she'd not allowed them to call anyone when they'd tried before!

Apart from the concerns about trumped up charges and justice not being done in the courtroom, there is also concern about the way the women are being treated, The women were being kept in a jail a couple of hours drive - in good traffic - from the court. On Monday they arrived at court at 8am although the hearing didn't actually start till gone 10.45, and spent the rest of the day in their glass box in court or in the holding cells on the floor above. The day's hearing finished about 9.30-ish, so that would have meant gerting back to the prison by midnight. They complained in court that they weren't being fed during the day, were only getting two-three hours sleep a night, and weren't getting time to speak to their lawyers.

So what happens now? Well, a verdict is expected in the next day or so. The public and political response will, I suppose, depend on the severity of the sentence. The lawyers have said they will appeal, possibly taking it to the European Court of Human Rights. The activists I met are well aware of the risks they face in speaking out, but are determined to keep up the campaign. They say that a certain level of political activism is tolerated, but once you're on the authorities radar, you'd better be careful.

This is about much more than three young women pulling a silly stunt in a cathedral and getting into more trouble than they bargained for. Let's hope they're released by the court tomorrow, but if not, let's be prepared to fight for them.

Members of female punk band Pussy Riot sit inside a glass enclosure during a court hearing in Moscow on 8 August. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.