Statement

Russia: Pussy Riot inspired blasphemy law threat to free expression

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ARTICLE 19

01 Jul 2013

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ARTICLE 19 calls on President Putin to veto a bill prohibiting religious insult, which was adopted by the Federation Council (Russia’s Upper Chamber of Parliament) on 25 June 2013. The adoption of this law is widely believed to be a reaction to Pussy Riot’s punk-protest performance in one of Moscow’s main cathedrals in February 2012.

Also on 25 June, Moscow City Court denied a supervisory appeal lodged against the conditional prison sentence of Yekaterina Samutsevich, one of the members of Pussy Riot. Samutsevich had been conditionally released following an appeal in October 2012, although the two-year prison sentences of fellow Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were upheld. Although the Court of Appeal accepted Samutsevich’s argument that she had not participated in the performance, Moscow City Court has now refused to quash her probation sentence. The court stated that it saw no grounds for mitigating or overturning the decision.

ARTICLE 19 believes that both this criminal sentence, and the imprisonment of Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, are politically motivated. We call for the immediate release of Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova and for a judicial review of their cases. 

Pussy Riot members’ incarceration

Maria Alyokhina is currently serving time in a penal colony in the Perm region, where a court denied her parole request on 23 May. In early June, she ended a hunger strike after the colony administration lifted additional collective security measures. These had been imposed in order to turn other inmates against Alyokhina. She initiated the hunger strike when she was denied permission to be present at the parole hearing.

In April, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was also denied parole.  In June, the conditions of both women’s incarceration were again brought to the attention of ARTICLE 19 during a conversation with two Pussy Riot members. ‘Schumacher’ and ‘Serafima’, who used aliases for security reasons, were in London to raise awareness about the plight of their fellow band members. They explained that Tolokonnikova is being unjustly deprived of her right to receive correspondence. They also stated that the two women are not always conscious of their worldwide support and they encouraged supporters to continue writing letters to them.[1]

The new law

 ‘This law is yet another addition to the arsenal of new legislation in Russia that can be used to single out and target public dissenters, allowing the government to frame repression through legal provisions’, stated Dr Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. ‘The refusal to overturn Yekaterina Samutsevich’s criminal sentence is a clear example of this approach.’

The adoption of the Federal Law ‘Amending Article 148 of the Criminal Code Russian Federation and Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation Aimed at Countering Insult of Religious Beliefs and Feelings of Citizens’ comes at a time of intensified crackdown on all strata of civil society. It is yet another blow to freedom of expression in Russia.

The bill is expected to be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin within days. It introduces criminal responsibility for religious insult, with punishments of up to three years imprisonment or a maximum fine of 500,000 RUB.

ARTICLE 19’s concerns

ARTICLE 19 issued a legal analysis of the draft law in May. Although the final version has been slightly amended, concerns about its compatibility with international human rights standards remain. The approved bill violates international freedom of expression standards as it does not comply with the three-part test under Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Russia is party. In particular:

  • The draft law fails the test of legality, as it introduces overly broad and vague legal terms, such as “insult of religious beliefs and feelings,” “denigration of a religious service,” and “religious literature.” The vagueness and subjective nature of these terms could lead to arbitrary interpretation and abuse by law enforcement agencies.
  • The draft law does not pursue a legitimate aim. ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly observed that there is a growing international consensus among states and UN human rights bodies. They agree that prohibition of defamation of religions and protections of symbols and beliefs are not only contrary to guarantees of freedom of expression but can also be used against the very religious groups that they purport to protect.

International human rights treaties do not permit the placing of restrictions on the exercise of freedom of speech in order to prevent criticism of religions. The purpose of any restriction on freedom of expression must be to protect individuals who hold specific beliefs or opinions, rather than to protect religions or belief systems from criticism.



[1] Letters of support can be sent to pussriotsolidarity@gmail.com. They will be printed and delivered to the addressee.