Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Possible Appeal In The Pussy Riot Verdict?

A quick follow up on three women who are likely the world's most famous political prisoners: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich; members of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot, who were recently sentenced to two years in prison for their “punk prayer” performance in Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral last February.

Or maybe not. Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said he is ready to appeal the two year sentence unless it is commuted by higher authorities (i.e. President Vladimir Putin). “If the sentence stays as is, the ombudsman has a right to appeal it at higher levels, which I will consider,” Lukin said in an interview with RIA Novosti, adding that he considered the group's cathedral performance “not as a crime but an administrative misdemeanor.”

It is hard to tell what affect, if any, the Ombudsman's comments will have on the sentence handed down against the three women, who have already served six months in jail awaiting their trial earlier this month.  Commuting their sentences though could give Putin, who before the trial said that the judge should not act “too harshly” towards the women, a chance to appear as a benevolent ruler while also negating a verdict that has led to harsh criticism of Russia from the international community.

Of course, another comment made by Lukin is an indication of why Pussy Riot is unlikely to serve as a rallying point for Russia's political opposition; Lukin called the cathedral performance “I consider it tactless and silly.”  Public opinion polls have shown that a majority of Russians hold similar views of the Pussy Riot protest.

Meanwhile, over at The Mantle this week, I talk about why the Pussy Riot trial isn't the most important political prosecution in Russia today.
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why Putin Needs To Arrest Madonna

Following their sentence to two years in prison, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina - the members of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot - have become an international cause célèbre. And one performer eager to take up the mantle for Pussy Riot is Madonna, who appeared on stage at her concert last week in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the words Free Pussy Riot written on her back.

But Madonna did something else during that show. To further show her displeasure at the Pussy Riot verdict (not to mention Russia's tepid support for Gay Rights), Madonna also stomped on a Russian Orthodox cross.

Let's reflect on that for a moment: Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina each received two-year year sentences for their performance within Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral on the grounds of “promoting religious hatred”. Yet aside from some loud music, bad dancing and profanity, Pussy Riot did nothing aside from make a purely political statement; they caused no damage to the cathedral, nor did they utter anything against the Orthodox religion, they recited their punk prayer to the Virgin Mary asking: “Holy Mother, Blessed Mother, drive Putin out!” It certainly was not disrespectful to anyone aside from Vladimir Putin.
On the other hand, Madonna decided to step on the symbol of the Russian Orthodox faith, which seems more like an act of “religious hatred”? And before justifying Madonna's actions as an act of free speech/free expression, let us for a moment contemplate what the reaction would be if at a concert in Tel Aviv, Madonna decided to stomp on the Star of David to protest some action by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Putin could actually use Madonna's protest to his advantage. Everyone regards the Pussy Riot trial as an attempt to stifle dissent in Russia by charging these women with crimes far outside of the scope of what they actually did; it is seen as a politically-motivated prosecution pure and simple. Putin could deflect, or attempt to deflect, these charges by calling for the arrest of Madonna on the same grounds of promoting religious hatred thanks to her act of outright religious vandalism.

It would be a fascinating way for Putin to turn the tables on his critics.
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Monday, August 13, 2012

London Closing: British Music, A Missing Queen and, Sadly, Ryan Seacrest

The London Olympics wrapped up last night in much the same way as they began, with a quirky, sometimes cheeky salute to all things British, particularly British music.

The London organizers largely dispensed with the interpretive pieces that typically mark these Olympic events. An opening number themed around London traffic largely served to introduce the eight-ramped stage in the shape of the Union Jack that dominated what, less than 24 hours before, had been the track and field area on the floor of the stadium. From then, the night quickly segued into an hour and a half long salute to England's contributions to modern pop music.

 The show got off to a rolling start, literally, when the iconic 80's ska group Madness performed their signature hit “Our House” from the back of a tractor trailer that circled the stadium floor. They were followed by another iconic 80's Brit pop act, The Pet Shop Boys, who performed “West End Girls” an apropo choice given the song's references to the East End, the site of the Olympic stadium, from the back of bicycle rickshaws. Contemporary acts also played a large role in the show; the Kasier Chiefs covered The Who's “Tommy”, while singer Jesse J also performed both as a solo act and with the surviving members of Queen on “We Will Rock You”, since what sporting event is complete without this song?

The Beatles didn't appear in person, though a rendition of John Lennon's “Imagine” was likely the emotional highlight of the night, and Russell Brand's rendition of “I Am The Walrus” might have been the quirkiest, had it not been for Monty Python's Eric Idle performing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”; complete with Victoria's Secret-style angels and a Bollywood dance troupe.  The highlight of the show though was likely the long-rumored reunion of the Spice Girls who took to the top of Austin Minis for their performance – Spice Girls standing on Minis, how more British can you get?

The Spice Girls after the show (London Telegraph pic).

Of course, the closing ceremonies provided one last opportunity for NBC to screw up the coverage. After promising a performance by The Who all evening, in the prime-time show's closing moments, viewers were told that The Who would actually be featured in their late-night coverage, which started at 12:30 EDT. This delay seemed mostly so that NBC could provide a preview of one of their craptacular fall “comedies”. Great move guys.  And coverage of the musical portion of the evening was turned over to Ryan Seacrest, likely due to NBC's baffling continued belief that Seacrest actually knows something about entertainment and is entertaining himself. Seacrest's few vacant contributions though could have easily been read by the real hosts, Al Michaels and Bob Costas, off of a TelePrompTer.  The only imprint Seacrest left on the coverage was to unwantedly speak over the performances on several occasions. My suggestion to NBC: leave Seacrest out of the coverage of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, or better yet, drop him in the ocean while en route to Sochi.

One final question from the Closing Ceremonies though is where were the Royals? Queen Elizabeth II was expected to be on hand to close the Games, yet the Queen was nowhere to be found; she did not even appear in video form (as did former Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury).  The whole Royal family attended the opening ceremonies, yet at the close they were represented only by Prince Harry, introduced formally as Prince Henry of Wales. He was accompanied by Duchess Catherine of Cambridge, better known as Kate, wife of Prince William.  The lack of Royal attendance seemed to be unexpected since several of the speakers, including outgoing IOC head Jacques Rogge, addressed their comments to the “Royals”, plural, making you think that they expected a larger attendance on the part of the Royal family.

Along with why NBC continues to employ Ryan Seacrest, the Royal presence is a lingering question from last night's otherwise brilliant Closing Ceremony.  
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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Putin Goes Soft On Pussy Riot

In a surprising turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a signal Thursday in London that could lead to leniency for the feminist punk protest outfit known as Pussy Riot.

If you haven't been following the Pussy Riot story, you can get caught up with this post I wrote this week for PolicyMic.  In short, the group bills themselves as a feminist punk collective; they gained national stature in Russia during the past year thanks to their rapid fire public performances of songs ripping into the Putin regime, which were then widely viewed on YouTube and other social media sites.  In February, Pussy Riot stormed into Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral to perform a “punk prayer” where they implored the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin out!”  Two weeks later, three of Pussy Riot's members: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, were arrested and charged with what amounts to a religious hate crime that could land them seven years in prison.

It has been widely believed that the harsh legal charges were directed from the very top, Putin himself, who took the performance, which also attacked the close links between the Putin government and Russian Orthodox Church, as a personal insult and that the prosecution of Pussy Riot has taken on the dimensions of a personal vendetta.  But Putin's comments Thursday, as reported by Reuters, could be a sign that he is softening his stance.

Saying that there was “nothing good” about the performance, Putin added: "Nonetheless, I don't think that they should be judged so harshly for this … I hope the court will come out with the right decision, a well-founded one.” In Putinland, that would seem to be a none-to-subtle signal to the courts not to impose the maximum seven year sentence on the three women.  That is the way that Pussy Riot defense attorney Nikolai Polozov is interpreting the comments. “Given the significance of such signals, we can expect some softening of the prosecution's position,” he said.

Putin's position could be the result of growing international pressure over the prosecution of Pussy Riot, which is seen as being largely political.  Their cause has been taken up by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which declared  Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina “prisoners of conscience”, to artists like Sting and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to protesters from St. Petersburg to Washington DC, where several dozen DC area “punks” gathered outside the Russian embassy this week.  Lawyer Polozov speculated that the signal from Putin might be to calm foreign investors in Russia over fears of politically-motivated prosecutions.

But Polozov is also sanguine about his clients' prospects, saying on Twitter: “to tell the truth, I don't believe Putin. If the signal gets through and the court reacts, OK, but if not we will fight on.”
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