Pussy Riot members ’deprived of sleep and food’ during trial


Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, who was taken ill in court. Photograph: Aleshkovsky Mitya/Itar-Tass Photo/Corbis

Three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot have been deprived of sleep and food by the Russian authorities, according to their lawyers, during a trial that critics say is part of a campaign to discredit the vociferous critics of the president, Vladimir Putin.

One of the women needed medical attention in court on the third day of a trial over the "punk prayer" the Pussy Riot band performed against Putin on the altar of Moscow's main cathedral in February.

Opponents say the trial is politically motivated and part of an attempt by Putin to silence the opposition, which has in the past eight months organised the biggest protests since he first rose to power in 2000.

A day after the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was charged with theft, federal investigators also suggested a fellow protest organiser, Gennady Gudkov, who is a member of the State Duma,  Russia's lower house of parliament, had been involved in illegal business activity.

The defence lawyer Violetta Volkova stepped up criticism of the Pussy Riot trial by saying Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, had been woken up at 5am and kept in a tiny room for hours without breakfast before being taken to court.

"The trial is being conducted in an outrageous way, " she said after a separate court rejected a plea for a month's recess to give the defence more time to read the prosecution's 3, 000-page case against the Pussy Riot members.

"The court sessions are lasting 11 hours a day, and our clients are not being allowed to eat or sleep adequately."

Volkova said hearings lasted late into the evening and the women got back to their cells long after midnight. Alyokhina felt ill in court on Wednesday and received treatment.

"It has been very difficult, " said Stanislav Samutsevich, the father of one of the defendants.

"She [Samutsevich] looks like she has just been on a long hunger strike. I think it is because they have been bringing them here several days in a row, and not feeding them from morning to night … They have driven them to exhaustion."

The trio are charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and face up to seven years in prison.

On the opening day of the trial on Monday, the women said they meant no offence and were motivated by anger over vocal support for Putin from the leader of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, during the presidential election campaign.

"This is a political case … and this is another sign that they will be sentenced to prison, " another defence lawyer, Mark Feigin, said.

The defence lawyers say the authorities want to swiftly wrap up the high-profile trial, which has touched off a debate over the close ties between church and state, while public attention is relatively low because of summer vacations.

But the trial is depicted by the opposition as one of a series of signs that Putin, who won the election in March, is determined to suppress dissent now that he has taken office.

The federal Investigative Committee said in a statement that after looking into allegations raised against Gudkov, it had found enough evidence to continue its investigation.

It will send the results to prosecutors and the Duma, which has the power to revoke Gudkov's immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament. Gudkov says he has done nothing illegal.

Navalny was charged on Tuesday over a sale of timber in 2009 in Russia's Kirov region, where he was advising the governor at the time. He denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations are absurd.

The United States said it was troubled by the charges against Navalny and Pussy Riot, as well investigations that have been launched into participants at a protest on 6 May at which violence broke out.

"All of these developments raise serious concerns about the politically motivated prosecutions of the Russian opposition and pressure on those who express dissenting views, " the US state department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on Tuesday.

The 6 May protest was staged a day before Putin began his new six-year term as president. Since then, parliament has passed a law increasing fines for protesters and tightened controls on foreign-funded campaign and lobby groups.

Putin, who has repeatedly warned against rocking the boat in speeches since his election, signed a law on Monday toughening punishment for defamation and another one on Tuesday that opponents say could be used to censor the internet.

He did not comment on the Pussy Riot trial or the US concerns during meetings with paratroopers on Wednesday.

The Pussy Riot trial is seen by the opposition as part of the crackdown. Although many Russians did not approve of the protest, most do not want harsh punishment for the three women.

In a nationwide survey conducted on 20-23 July and published on Tuesday, Levada found that 26% of Russians believed the defendants deserved prison sentences of more than six months.

A local leader of the ruling United Russia party in Putin's hometown of St Petersburg has also taken the unusual step of openly calling for their immediate release in an open letter posted in his blog.

Reuters in Moscow, posted in the Guardian

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