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.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle