NS Christmas campaign: Show your solidarity for Pussy Riot

The New Statesman is supporting Amnesty's Write for Rights Campaign.

Their trial made international headlines. Their conviction sparked criticism from politicians to pop stars. Yet widespread censure and general outrage could not deter Russia’s judiciary from enforcing the harsh punishment on the three members of punk band Pussy Riot for their performance in a Moscow cathedral.

Charged with "hooliganism on the grounds of religious hatred", Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are now spending two years imprisoned in Russia’s penal colonies after they performed a song in a cathedral in Moscow criticising Russia’s president and some leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church (the third member Ekaterina Samutsevich had her conviction reduced to a suspended sentence upon appeal).

Certainly, some considered Pussy Riot’s performance of the “Punk Prayer” to be offensive. The band members themselves admit this and have apologised if they caused offence. However it was clear to most observers – including Amnesty International – that the harsh punishment is emblematic of the fact that in recent years Russian authorities have become increasingly intolerant of criticism and legitimate dissent.

Journalists and human rights defenders and artists (including some punk band members) in Russia regularly face the challenge of exercising their right to freely express their opinion sometimes at the risk of their own freedom or even physical security.  The recent move by Russia’s judiciary to ban Pussy Riot videos online is another indication of Russia’s attempt to trample on freedom of expression.  

At the time of their arrest, Amnesty International described the punk protesters as “prisoners of conscience” and called for their immediate and unconditional release.  It continues to campaign for their release and the imprisoned Pussy Riot members feature prominently in its annual Write for Rights Campaign.

For the next four weeks, the New Statesman will be supporting Amnesty International’s Write for Rights Campaign which successfully connects men and women, young and old in the UK with people elsewhere who have been wrongly imprisoned, at risk of harassment and intimidation for carrying out human rights work and to family members seeking justice for their loved ones. 

As Amnesty has seen in previous years, not only does sending a letter to the authorities and the people at risk remind the recipients that thousands are aware of their plight and are standing in solidarity with them, it also sends a worrying signal to the authorities who see the number of messages being delivered to these men and women at risk that the world is standing up with them, and for them. It takes just five minutes to show your solidarity for Pussy Riot. Just visit www.amnesty.org.uk/pussyriot.   

For more information about Amnesty’s Write for Rights Campaign visit www.amnesty.org.uk/write.

Protestors shackled outside the Russian Embassy in London. Photograph: Imran Uppal/Amnesty International

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.