Even as a child, it seemed to be a given that there was freedom of religion, speech, and press.  We are taught that these are universal and fundamental rights—memorialized, rather than created, by the Bill of Rights.  Yet many would argue that a recent Russian judicial decision serves as a reminder that that the fundamental human right to express oneself is still unjustifiably limited in many countries today.

On February 21, 2012, the members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot staged a “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior Cathedral.  Interrupting services, Pussy Riot performed their song, Virgin Mary, Get Putin Out, which criticizes President Putin’s relationship with the Church.  A video of the performance, overlaid with the original song recording, has since gone viral.

After less than a minute’s performance, the band members were arrested and placed into detention.  On August 17, three of the band members were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.  The judge explained that they had “deeply insulted the faith of believers with their disrespectful criminal act and that the punk protest was blasphemous against the Orthodox church.”  The convicted women have been sentenced to two years in prison.

Though a Levada Centre poll reports that 44% of Russians believe that “the case against the band was conducted in a just manner,” the international public has reacted with outrage.  Popular musicians and personalities, including Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul McCartney, and Anthony Bourdain, have been outspoken regarding the perceived violation of the basic human right to expression.  Members of the general public have staged protests around the world.  After making their closing statements, the band members were met with a standing ovation.

As an appeal is pending, it will be interesting to see what effect the public outcry will have on the outcome of this case, as well as on Russian law, generally.  The Church has already publicly stated that it forgives the band members and has requested for “mercy within the limits of the law.”

More importantly, Freemuse, an international NGO supporting musicians’ rights, has pointed out in its appeal letter to President Putin and the Prosecutor General that Russia is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Articles 19 and 20 of that document state that every person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as assembly.  Additionally, Freemuse’s letter notes that the UN Commission on Arbitrary Detention recently executed an opinion regarding a very similar case in Cameroon that ultimately asked that the Cameroon government provide the persecuted singer with compensation and security.

What effect will international public outcry have on the case and the Russian judicial system as a whole?  Is the Russian government justified in charging the convicted women with “hooliganism” for interrupting a church service with a defiant punk prayer?  Is there a way for the law to promote respect of religion while still maintaining a full right to the freedom of expression?  If the conviction stands, what actions should be taken and by whom?

Erin Reimer

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