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Maria Stambler (l) and Pussy Riot lawyer Violetta Volkova in Moscow  19.08.2012  Maria Stambler (l) and Pussy Riot lawyer Violetta Volkova in Moscow Photo: ©Safeworld

Exclusive interview by Maria Stambler, Russia Correspondent for Safe World. August 2012.

In the first part of an interview, lawyer Violetta Volkova, talks to Maria Stambler about defending Pussy Riot.

Pussy Riot lawyer, Violetta Volkova, met with Maria Stambler in Moscow, two days after the high profile sentencing of three of the members of the Russian band.

 

How do you regard the verdict? What form of punishment would have been more fair? Two members of the group were fined 500 rubles ($15) each for the January Red Square incident so would this be the same appropriate punishment for the non-harmful incident in the Cathedral?

Now we cannot speak of any form of punishment. The 526 article is an administrative article, and it expires after two months. The performance happened on the 23rd of February, so the time allowed for any conviction has expired.

Now the only acceptable form of punishment would be no punishment, acquittal. The government has crossed the point of no return – it has started the trial process in court, but at the same time the time for it do it expired a while ago.

Now that the verdict has been given the only thing that can happen is for a new verdict to be given, and this new verdict can only be acquittal. No other verdict will satisfy neither the girls, nor us.

And you will keep fighting for this?

Yes, without doubt.

Did Maria, Nadezhda and Yekaterina expect that at some time they might get prosecuted for what they were doing. If not in the cathedral, in a later incident? If so, had they already said they were prepared to go to prison whatever happened?

No. No one expected such a reaction from the government. It wasn’t society’s reaction it was the reaction of the government.

Everything that happened afterwards was politics of propaganda. The government commissioned some television spots to try and shape the minds of the population, but they failed to form any kind of negative sentiments. Yes, there is a group of citizens, who truly feel negative emotions. But what do these people say? They say that their religion has been offended. That’s fine, but what does article 213 (hooliganism motivated by religious hatred) have to do with this?

The government failed. It wanted to do everything in a beautiful fashion: to be strong and strict, but instead fell in a ditch, and lost any kind of remaining respect. The girls did not sustain any harm to their reputation, the government and the Church did.

Do you think the outcome was predetermined? Was it clear from the outset that they’d go to jail and your job was simply to mitigate the number of years or do you think there was room for any other outcome?

 It definitely was worth fighting for them.  In this case, we had a duty as lawyers to do anything we could within legal limits to defend them. And we did just that.

We knew the outcome from the start because we too have our sources. We knew the prosecution would demand three years in jail, we knew this back in April, several weeks after the arrest of our clients.

If you dig online you can find an interview we gave back in April saying that we know that prosecution will ask for three years. The government really wanted to pressure them and therefore we knew the girls would not be acquitted.

If they were to be acquitted, there would be dozens, hundreds, of journalists and activists in the courthouse, and the girls would come out to them, and this would be a huge embarrassment to the government. So what the government chose to do is to tarnish its own reputation further, but not let them out. That says a lot about personal qualities of our leaders.  

Prosecution wanted three years and the girls got two – do you think it was due to international pressure or authorities trying to appease public opinion at home and abroad? Is there a chance that in two years the government will come up with new charges against the women, kind of like with Khodorkovsky?

No. public opinion abroad has been formed, public opinion all over the globe has been formed. People were not ready for such a verdict. We’ve been following public opinion, and the only verdict the world was ready for was one where the girls were acquitted. The time they’ve done already is more than enough.

The vast majority of people know that this verdict is unlawful, and that they must be acquitted. Some hoped they would be released, while others hoped they would at least get away this easy, although they’re innocent. These people are fully aware that the girls are innocent, yet they give the Russian government a chance to break the laws pertaining to human rights. They allow the government to convict innocent people, and this is a slave mentality. I have no idea where it stems from, but it is absolutely unacceptable.

Every citizen must realize that tomorrow he/she could be in that same place where the girls are, be it for a remark against our leaders or accidentally wearing the cross upside down, and thus looking like a Satanist. You get slapped with the 213 and off you go to serve a two year prison sentence.

It always starts with small things, and ends in complete absurdity and totalitarianism, and human rights violation. Therefore we must not allow the government to violate the rights of others if we don’t want this to happen to us.

Pussy Riot’s freedom is everyone’s freedom now. Our parents’, children’s, relatives’, everyone’s freedom.  

What do you think of Madonna’s speech at her concert in Moscow? Do you think her and other influential musicians and public figures have the capacity to significantly raise human rights awareness in Russia and put pressure on authorities?

Pressuring our government is an impossible task, but, obviously, it carries serious risks to its image when the world audience tunes in.

How many people knew about pussy riot and the human rights violations at the start of the process? There were about five people - journalists and activists - who came to the first sitting. Now look at the last one: it took two hours to let in all the journalists who wanted to take photos before the start of the sentencing. All the halls were full, the loudspeaker was turned on throughout the whole courthouse because there were people standing in the stairwells, there were people standing everywhere and listening to the process.

We have never seen anything like this before here. It has no precedents. That's why the fans and supporters any famous person who supports the girls automatically find out about this case.

This widens the circle of people who know about the grave violations of human rights in Russia.

Why do you think that the Western media took such an interest? Was it really about the women or was it because Putin has upset people recently because of his stance on Syria?

Here's the thing: mass media have no nationality, but they do have their specific status and aim - they inform the citizens of their respective nations about what's going on.

If human rights are abused, what place does Russia have in Europe? A country that cannot guarantee lawful respect of human rights has no place in Europe...how can we even speak of joining WTO? First the country needs to learn to respect human rights within its own borders, and only then come out on the international arena. That would be correct.

Yes, there were ratifications of protocols, but do you understand how difficult it will be for our politicians to adapt to the European system, when all of Europe understands that a dictator stands before it?

Should people outside Russia be seeing them in terms of the old political prisoners of the Soviet Era? And should we expect more to be following them?

Of course we should. They are exactly that - political prisoners.

We currently have seven people who are recognized as political prisoners in Russia, starting with Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, and finishing with Navalany, Udaltsev and our three girls. And there will be more.

The process of citizen activity is gaining momentum, and the government does not like it. If the case of the 6th May goes through [mass arrests of opposition leaders following the mass demonstrations against Putin's inauguration on the 6th May] and the leader of our opposition ends up behind bars, someone else will surely take their place, and the government will certainly try to suppress this protest.

New people and new faces will appear, and the list of political prisoners will get bigger to my greatest dismay. Only a normal civic society can ensure that this list comes down to zero.

We need to create a separate government body that would deal with the fate of political prisoners, and keep an eye on the government to make sure it does not allow the kinds of abuses it's allowing today.

How likely do you think it is that such a body could exist in Russia?

Technically it could, but it would be difficult. Even the president's Council for Human Rights is a de facto non-operational body. How many it times did it release statements on the government's unlawful actions towards certain individuals? Not once did it prove to be a basis for the government to re-think its policies. But, in any case, besides this body our government is being closely watched by people from across the globe.

We are now slipping into a totalitarian regime. We mustn't fall right through, however.

We had soft authoritarianism, and now it's become hard - we see this because absolutely innocent people are being convicted of completely fabricated crimes, and the government is the one pulling the strings for this to happen. We can now say that the authoritarianism is becoming harder.

The word totalitarianism even comes to mind becaus what we see now is a slippery road down to complete tyranny. We are clearly not living in a democratic society.

How do you think the increasing internet penetration rates and access to alternative media are helping raise awareness and change Russians’ perceptions about the current political state of affairs?

It has a huge effect. And it will definitely help.

We've had different means of communication before. Before it was snail mail, but now society is growing, a more serious civilization is appearing. Then we had the newspapers, radio, and TV.

Now we have Internet. It is a much faster way of communicating, which allows a piece of news to spread around the world in a matter of minues. And not within specific borders, but across the whole globe.

I see the internet as THE alternative to the government's media, which imposes censorship, and uses it for propaganda purposes.

It's quite difficult to defeat the internet, although attempts are being made. They're attempting to get in there, but it's still going to be hard and problematic for the government.

Would Pussy Riot’s performance at the Christ the Savior Cathedral have become so known if it wasn’t for Youtube, Facebook and Twitter?

Of course not, and everyone understands this. Maybe it would have become known, but definitely not to this extent.

Back in the 19th century we had only newspapers. Several hundred copies were printed daily, and those who managed to read it found out the news of the day. But Internet is different.

A new anti-Putin song appeared online a week ago and already has 2.5 million views.

What will happen to the girls families now? Will it be safe for their families? Will their families be able to see them?

Their families can visit now, though before it was forbidden. Relatives did not get permission, in order to somehow put pressure on the girls.

The women are still not allowed to see their children, those that have children, that is. It should be a little easier now.

We are not expecting any miracles, but we do hope that all this will be communicated quickly in Europe, and that the European Court of Human Rights rules their criminal conviction unlawful, and demands their immediate release.

And will Russia listen to the European Court of Human Rights?

It's the international norm. Russia itself has said that international norms and laws take priority over national/federal legislation.

For this reason, Russia will have to listen.

What are their conditions like now?

Conditions are alright. They've been assigned to special cells.

They've been convicted of violating article 213 - hooliganism, disrupting public order, etc. - and should technically be sitting with prisoners convicted of very serious crimes like murder, etc. But the women share their cells with women that have been convicted of economic crimes.

They're in cells which hold a maximum of four inmates.

Are they all together?

No, they've been put in different cells, one above the other.

One of the women is on the first floor, the other on the second, and the third on the third floor. Their conditions are fine now, but we have no idea what will happen after they get sent to the prison colony.

These prison colonies are quite uncontrolled places, so we are worried for their lives and their well being. Especially because of the propaganda campaign developed against them by the government, the inmates there have no other sources of information, and cannot come to the correct conclusions about the girls, and so their first days there will be especially difficult.

What is the role of the Orthodox Church in this case? Are they bound by a "common bond" with the State - or really - are they supporting a political cause - with political and personal agendas? 

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is exactly what they sang about. In the “punk prayer” the girls spoke about how now the civilian government and the ROC are growing into one whole, like Siamese twins – one cannot exist without the other.

Today I read one interesting statement: Internet Explorer has the same relation to the Internet as the ROC does to religion – if you don’t like it, change your browser.

This may sound harsh and offensive, but it’s completely true. If you don’t like the organization or the institution that leads you to your faith, then change your denomination. Believe differently. Don’t go to church. Faith – for agnostics and atheists – is conscience. Some say “we live by God’s commandments”, while others say they live by their conscience. These two things are the same. In a civilized society one cannot say that one person is Orthodox and the other one is God knows who, believes in God knows what, and so is completely unnecessary to society. Non-believers also do things – good things, bad things – but they do them through their conscience.

If everyone’s conscience worked the way it’s meant to, then we wouldn’t have a society divided by denominations.

We need a government that is independent of the Church, and can live and function without religion. Every person could practice their chosen faith freely, and religion will not influence the sphere of the government. We are all waiting for this, but, unfortunately, still in vain.

In 2010 a document was produced during a big meeting of our ruling party – United Russia – in which the concept of “ideologization” was discussed. It was said that Russian society lacks ideology, and the Russian Orthodox ideology was proposed as the solution. What we are seeing now is the result of this “clericification” of society that was initiated by the government. 

Finally, can you tell me a little about the three women? Apart from their political views that are well known to the public, what are they like otherwise?

It's very difficult to say what they like and what their hobbies are because we never dug that deep into their souls since we have more of a work environment, but what I can say is that these women are very wholesome individuals, very determined, highly educated and cultured.

When it is said that they're some stupid girls, it's absolutely not true because we see before us highly intelligent people. Katya Samutsevich, for example, about whom they wrote "look at her sitting there with such an impudent smile", is a very modest person, and she smiled like that only because she was so shy from all this attention she was receiving.

As a result, after spending time with them, after they got used to us, the whole line of defense was fully their initiative. We, the lawyers, did not force anything upon them, we did not take command, did not Instruct them. We basically fully fulfilled their wishes.

Having spent so much time with them, I can say that they are very gifted people. Very gifted women, and I feel enormous respect towards them.

Part 2 of the interview