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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.